Engage them or lose them: holding on to your female leaders

By Harriet Croxton December 23, 2015

DiversityModern day organisations are playing at Diversity; unconscious biases exist without organisations recognising it and organisations are losing talented women from the business before they can reach their full potential. These were just some of the thoughts shared during our Think Tank Dinner held recently in London.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has put the topic of Women in Leadership firmly back on the mainstream agenda. Her brand of feminism is much debated, but essentially she suggests that women, driven by gender stereotypes to be submissive, are missing out on workplace success due to misplaced insecurity, passivity and docility.

We hosted a Think Tank Dinner where we bought together female leaders working in the area of HR and Learning and Development to discuss the role of Women in Leadership. We aimed to understand the issues they face and how we, as HR and L&D professionals, can better support them.

The dinner was hosted under Chatham House rules and as such, does not reveal the participating individuals or organisations specifically. Contributing to the debate were representatives from the Banking and Finance, Leisure, Food and Beverage, Defence and Professional Services sectors.

This is what they had to say.

For the time challenged here are the key issues that organisations face around Women in Leadership:

  • Organisations do not embed diversity issues deeply enough and they are one of the first things to get tossed aside
  • Unconscious bias is rife but organisations don’t realise it exists and don’t offer training for it
  • Collaboration and social media groups exist for diverse groups but little content is being shared
  • Businesses are losing key talent as women leave organisations in favour of a different culture and more professional opportunity

Embedding Diversity Agenda

There is a sense that some companies play at diversity issues because they think they should. It seems unless these policies are properly embedded they can be tossed aside very easily.

We had an interesting situation at our dinner where two of the guests had experience with the same company; one as a current employee, and one having worked there two years previously.  The former employee was able to share that the organisation had once made really good progress around diversity but since leaving and the current employee joining they established that, distracted by a major reorganisation and new HR system, this good work had been undone and there had not been one agenda item around diversity in eighteen months.  Proof that unless the diversity policies are properly embedded and have a strategy and plan to support them, they can fall by the wayside.

Many of the guests felt that there was often just a feeling that organisations want to be diverse and that they want women in leadership roles. There is often no substance behind the decision. The ‘why this is good for us’ is often missing and, as in the instance of one participating organisation, their Executive Board just raised it as something that needed to be looked at, demonstrating that it can be firmly put back on the agenda as quickly as it left. Until an organisation really understands the ‘why’, the drive and the strategy to achieving it becomes a bit meaningless.

Unconscious Bias

It is often said that there is a lack of opportunity for women and other diverse groups, due to unconscious bias or implicit prejudice and this contributes to the lack of diversity in the workplace.

We all have biases and they are embedded in us during our childhood; they are the filters that we use to see the world around us, whether that’s the way we view gender, race, class, education or disability. However the circumstances of your birth should not dictate your future.

One well documented study on gender bias was talked about earlier this year by Yasmin Abdel-Magied at Ted Talks. She introduced a case study from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had acknowledged how few women played in the orchestra during the 1950s. Suspecting there may be a bias towards men they decided to have all auditions take place behind a screen. Initially the result had no impact on the number of men recruited so they changed the experiment again, asking candidates to remove their shoes as they suspected the clickity-clack of the ladies’ heels as they entered the room was still skewing the male-dominated result. The result this time was very different, with over 50% of female applicants progressing to the next stage.

Most people don’t recognise that they have any unconscious bias and it was thought that employers should offer training in this area, (only one organisation in our group did), or people should be encouraged to take an Implicit Associations Test (IAT) such as those available free at Project Implicit®, Harvard.

One of the women in the group observed that she had shown a bias against women with children when recruiting. As a mother herself she believed that we may be biased against the things that we are closest to and wondered if she was unconsciously questioning whether she should be at home with her own children.

One of the guests at the dinner had previously worked in a recruitment role and shared with the group that at one time CVs were routinely put forward to recruiters for review without names or gender so no bias around gender or race could be formed.

It is important that we acknowledge that these biases are there as that allows us to move on from them and try and overcome them. We need to look beyond our preconceptions.

Collaboration and Social Media Groups are not engaging women

Many organisations – and certainly those represented at our dinner – have networking groups in place for all areas of the business, including for women. Social collaborations tools such as Yammer, WeChat and Whatsapp were being used, but it was noted that in reality very little content was being shared. In most cases these were voluntary tools rather than something being driven by a business need or by a key strategy decision. However, this is probably how it should be, as when it comes to social collaboration tools it was agreed that you shouldn’t try to formalise something that is designed to be completely informal.

Losing women from leadership roles

Maintaining a good balance of women within leadership roles is a fragile concept.  Organisations often work hard to achieve that balance but sometimes the culture doesn’t hold and sustain it and the situation can change very quickly. Many of the guests had observed that when businesses reorganise or mergers take place, women often take the opportunity to leave and follow another career path; resulting in a loss of talent and key role models.

The group cited a number of different studies on the reasons why women leave the corporate workplace. According to this report from LinkedIn it is more often due to professional opportunity and dissatisfaction with management than with work-life balance, as we might tend to assume.

One guest talked about her experience in a previous role during a high-profile telecoms merger. The redundancy packages were so attractive that people left in their droves. However, it was observed that around 80% of those that left where actually women and a significant amount of talent was lost.

So, why do fewer men take up these opportunities? And what is the male opinion on all of these issues? Unsurprisingly, the subject of men came up quite a bit at an all-female dinner and in part two of our Think Tank report we’re going to be looking at these issues from a man’s point of view and bringing the male perspective into the debate …

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