10 Ways Organizations Can Support Women to Lead and Thrive

Women are leading the great resignation, choosing to opt out of the workplace. Some are feeling the tug of conflict between balancing work and family, while others are opting out to focus on more flexible and meaningful work. Women don’t want to feel like they can only get ahead by making sacrifices - e.g. “I can either be successful in my role, or I can stay home with the kids - but I can’t do both”. Women shouldn’t be penalized. 

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Businesswomen putting hands in the middle
Businesswomen putting hands in the middle

The pandemic and its aftermath have thwarted progress made towards gender equality, and professional women are feeling conflicted, stressed out and are leaving the organization in droves.

Women are leading the great resignation, choosing to opt out of the workplace. Some are feeling the tug of conflict between balancing work and family, while others are opting out to focus on more flexible and meaningful work. Women don’t want to feel like they can only get ahead by making sacrifices – e.g. “I can either be successful in my role, or I can stay home with the kids – but I can’t do both”. Women shouldn’t be penalized. 

We know the benefits of diversity. Organizations with greater gender diversity outperform those that don’t. 

Women want flexibility, meaningful work and equal opportunities for growth, development and progression. These shouldn’t be add-ons or afterthoughts. These are the fundamental practices organizations must cultivate in order to retain and attract women in today’s war for talent. 

  • Flexibility isn’t just about creating part time opportunities. It’s being able to work on flexible terms, having the option to choose flexible hours and having more opportunities to work from home. 
  • Meaningful work is work that connects women to a higher purpose and that is aligned with their strengths and values. Women want opportunities where they can have an impact and make a difference. 
  • Equal opportunities for growth, development and progression is important and yet many women today feel opportunities are limited. In a recent survey conducted by Fairygodboss, women were asked what they wished employers would provide while working remotely. The second most popular answer, behind a stipend for establishing a home office, was “free or discounted online professional development opportunities or online learning”. Women want to grow and progress in their careers. 

What can organizations do to support women at work? Below are 10 ways organizations can support women to lead and thrive.  

  1. Organizations must create flexible policies where women have flexibility over their hours as well as options for paid time off. Research by Mercer showed that 56% of workers would try to switch jobs if their employers do not retain flexible work after the pandemic. In a survey by theSkimm, 43% of millennial women (age 25 to 40) said remote work is very important or extremely important moving forward and 22% said they would no longer consider working for an employer if work-from-home wasn’t an option in the future. 
  2. Organizations seeking gender parity must actively manage women’s careers and create opportunities for women to progress and advance. Women often get overlooked for opportunities and promotion and many fear this disadvantage is heightened in a remote or hybrid model. Providing leadership development opportunities for high performing and high potential talent as well as providing women with tools and resources to actively manage and advance their careers can be effective starting points. According to McKinsey, women are more likely to stay and recommend the organization as a great place to work, if they believe there is equal opportunity to advance. 
  3. Rethinking performance management to focus on outputs and results will also be critical. Managers need to be equipped with new skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion (empathy + action) to effectively manage performance in a hybrid and flexible model. Opportunities to open up frequency of communication and feedback will also be essential. 
  4. Implementing a formal mentoring program can be an effective way to elevate women and support them in advancing their careers. In organizations mentoring programs often take a back seat. The ROI can be hard to measure and many women feel like they don’t have the time or are just not sure how to seek out or to be a mentor. To be effective, organizations should implement a formalized program and make it a normalized part of organizational culture. Encourage women to mentor others. Provide them with the time and the tools to support other women. Those who do are more likely to bridge the gap in gender equality and will be able to attract more women into the organization. 
  5. As well as mentoring, organizations should also consider putting in place a formal sponsorship program. While mentoring provides more of a 1:1 relationship where a mentor aims to support others through providing advice and guidance, sponsorship is where a senior employee takes action on behalf of their sponsee, actively championing and advocating for them and opening up opportunities for advancement and promotion. In the HBR article titled “A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership”, Herminia Ibarra shares the distinction as “a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you.” Looking back over my career, I can recall fondly, and with much gratitude, the women who championed me. They saw my potential, spoke up for me, sponsored me and provided me with stretch opportunities to grow and advance. My path may have been very different had I not had the opportunity to learn from these inspirational women. The challenge today is there are too few sponsors, and yet having one can open up many doors. 
  6. Ensure women have a seat at the table AND have a voice. According to McKinsey “one in five women say they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work. This is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles where around 40 percent are “Onlys”. I’ve been in many meetings as an “only” and have experienced first hand being interrupted, talked over and/or my ideas not being heard, only for said ideas repeated by a male counterpart and them getting the credit. As a result of frequent interruptions and of not feeling heard, women become disempowered and tend to speak up less. A study at Brigham Young University found that for many women, having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice. They quote “put a woman alone with four men, and 70 percent of the interruptions she receives from men are negative. Compare that with having four women in the room: here, just 20 percent of the interruptions women receive from men are negative. When women have the numbers, “men undergo a drastic change. They become far less aggressive.”’ To combat this systemic issue organizations should provide education and training on gender issues and the challenges women face at work. Enroll men as allies and advocates. Set up meeting norms and systems that benefit all minorities and ensure everyone has an equal voice regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other identifier. 
  7. Create opportunities for women to connect with other women by building community. One such way is through setting up an employee resource group (ERG). ERG’s are a great way for women to network, to connect with role models and mentors, to amplify each other, to explore similar challenges, and to learn, grow and advance professionally. 
  8. Set diversity goals and strategy. According to Mercer, only 42% of organizations have a documented multi-year DEI strategy. Organizations serious about diversity must ensure it is a top level goal and incorporated as part of company strategy and across all pillars of talent management including hiring, rewards and performance management. It needs commitment from the top. Managers and leaders should be accountable for achieving diversity goals through setting performance goals and metrics. 
  9. Hire more women. Women are underrepresented at most levels in the organization and we still have some way to go to reach gender equality. Organizations can look to over-index by setting goals to hire more women than men, although research suggests that even with favorable talent flows it will take 10 years to increase female representation by just 3%. Organizations must ensure they make hiring women a priority. They must ensure there are fair processes and measures in place where women are represented in hiring and selection, that job postings are inclusive and advertised in places where women have visibility (e.g women’s groups), that evaluation criteria are fair, and that anyone involved in the hiring process has received adequate training that addresses unconscious bias. 
  10. Provide opportunities and resources for coaching and well-being. We know women are struggling. They are stressed out and overwhelmed. We also know that when women lack the time, they put their own self-care on the backburner. Research found that 77% of women don’t do what they know they should do to stay healthy due to lack of time and it’s this cycle that heightens stress, dilutes performance and eventually leads to burnout. Providing women with easy to access coaching and resources can help ease the pressure women face. Women are able to alleviate stress, build greater capacity, let go of their fears and limiting beliefs and lead with greater presence. 

study by Zenger Folkman found that women were rated more highly in leadership effectiveness than men and were perceived to be more effective than their male counterparts in 13 out of the 16 competencies assessed. The research is clear. Women make better leaders and add to the bottom line. With so many women leaving the corporate world, organizations must continue to cultivate a culture of inclusion, growth and development, and provide opportunities where women can lead and thrive.

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