Executive Insider

Want to Advance Women at Work? Chances Are You’re Going About It All Wrong

Business People

A recent study shows that women at S&P 500 companies represent only 5% of CEOs. Gender disparity occurs in executive boardrooms, too, where women make up 16% of board members among the S&P 1500. There’s no question that we need to do more to develop women at all career stages and grow  them into leadership roles.

There’s plenty of research showing that diverse teams, including those with women, are more innovative and more profitable. One study in Spain of 4,277 companies showed that companies with more women were “more likely to introduce radical new innovations” over a two-year period.

Many companies do attempt to support women’s professional growth. But, according to a report on the Women’s Leadership Gap, as recently as 2018 women were underrepresented in senior positions across industries ranging from financial services to law, medicine, and politics. The numbers for women of color are even more stark than for their white women counterparts.

Ensuring women have access to professional development, promotions, and executive roles takes more than good intentions. Creating opportunities for women starts the moment you receive their resume. It’s not enough to simply hire more women; companies must support them and make sure their accomplishments are recognized and rewarded.

Here are a few common pitfalls and practical tips on how to avoid them.

Ignoring Unconscious Bias

Both men and women are twice as likely to hire a male candidate. This is a form of unconscious bias regarding gender roles and careers. Bias does not make us bad people—it’s simply a result of the messages that we’ve been surrounded by since birth. You may wonder if men interview better. Are they more confident, or more convincing? What if I told you that men are favored even before the interview takes place?

In one experiment, over 100 scientists were asked to review a fictitious resume. The qualifications were identical, and only the name (John vs. Jennifer) was different. Jennifer was viewed as “less competent” and the scientists proposed offering her a starting salary that was on average 13% less than they offered John.

Because women can’t control how others perceive them, it’s important to raise awareness of unconscious bias. Hire a Diversity and Inclusion firm to facilitate a session for you, or take advantage of free online training from companies like Google and Microsoft. Use what you learn to inform who you hire, develop, and promote, weeding out bias to focus on merit.

Over Emphasis on Mentoring

Many women don’t have the benefit of having a mentor. While that might seem easy to fix, get this: according to one study, even when women and men both had mentors, the men were promoted at a 15% higher rate. So clearly, mentoring alone is not the answer. There are many complex forces that conspire to hold women back. And while there’s no silver bullet, there are actions you can take to help women thrive and reach their leadership potential.

I’ve personally benefited from mentoring over the years, both formal and informal. I was lucky enough to get matched with a mentor early in my career whom I still consider a friend. For me, mentoring was one powerful tool along with other types of development, sponsorship, and stretch opportunities.

Want to augment your mentor program? Consider services like those offered by Ceresa—mentoring plus. Their nine-month program designed for women includes a 360-degree feedback assessment and executive coaching. These tools are so powerful, I’ve offered them to several women leaders on my own team.

One Seat at the Table 

There are still teams, leaders, and boards who believe one woman is enough and two is too many. I recently met a young woman who left her company after learning that the team she wanted to join preferred not to have more than one female team member at a time.

Women already talk less in meetings and are interrupted more than men. Without female colleagues to amplify one another, this can be frustrating. One seat at the table fosters competition vs. collaboration between women. A shortage of women on interview panels and in leadership roles tells talented women candidates they should look elsewhere for a company that values them.

Conduct your own informal audit. Do you have one or more women on interview panels? If your team is all men, invite a woman from another team or department. Not only will you have better representation, you’ll get a different perspective on the candidate. If your website and social media images are homogeneous, you’re sending the wrong message. When you host internal and external events, beware of manels (all male panels).

Small Steps Result in Big Changes

Change begins when we discover what it’s like for others and modify our behavior accordingly. We know the stats, we’ve listened to women’s stories, and—as leaders—it’s time to be courageous. It’s time to break free from the status quo.

Written by Mikaela Kiner. Don’t miss:
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Mikaela Kiner
Mikaela Kiner is an experienced HR / People Operations professional, founder/CEO, and executive coach. In 2015, Mikaela founded Reverb, creating a healthy, inclusive culture in startups and growing companies in the Pacific Northwest. A People Operations professional for nearly twenty years, Mikaela enjoys coaching leaders at all levels and promoting gender equality at work. Mikaela is the author of Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace. Mikaela Kiner is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.