Overcoming Unseen Obstacles: How to Get More Women Into Leadership Positions

This is a grave problem for the Indian economy in the digital era, and persists despite widespread awareness about gender issues

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By Heide Abelli


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The number of women occupying front-line managerial roles and entering traditionally male-dominated professions has increased. Yet when it comes to senior leadership roles, women are still under-represented (only 5% of leadership roles are held by women). In fact, India ranks fifth lowest in having women in top leadership positions in its companies.

This is a grave problem for the Indian economy in the digital era, and persists despite widespread awareness about gender issues, a increase in the number of women in the workforce and a seemingly higher degree of gender-neutrality in workplaces.

The Need of Woman Leaders

Companies have realized how a lack of women in leadership roles can negatively impact business outcomes and work culture. Studies report a direct correlation between a company's financial performance and the number of women leaders at the company. Development Dimensions International states that in companies which were in the top 20% of financial performance, women occupied 37% of the leadership roles. This is largely because diversity in leadership results in greater innovation.

Thus many companies are setting up measures or programmes to address a lack of gender diversity in leadership roles. Unfortunately, due to the existence of underlying second genetation gender bias, subtle prejudices commonly lurk in organizations. This gives rise to barriers which inhibit women from moving up the corporate ladder and can make an organizations' efforts to address this ineffective.

Three Reasons Where Companies Are Erring

When programmes are driven exclusively by a "check-the-box' mentality: Often organizations offer episodic leadership development programmes which focus only on a select few employees. This is because they want to appear as though they are addressing the issue. Human resource leaders may feel pressured to demonstrate that they have rolled out programmes to address gender gaps. However, once the programme is over, they fail to go any further or integrate efforts into organizational practice.

When organizations focus on gendered structural approaches: Usually companies are evaluated as "Best Places to Work for Women" on the basis of indexes such as availability of flexi-time and childcare options. However, women who utilize these, suddenly find themselves lagging behind in their career journey, even if they are deserving. While the focus on the "women-only' approach ensures retention of female employees, it comes with its own share of drawbacks such as wage reductions and slower promotions, among others.

When training is not sensitive to gender biases: Training often does not take into consideration embedded biases present among the broader workforce. It is no secret that biases are naturally integrated into how we analyze things. Until organizations make a conscious effort to remove these, even the best programmes won't be effective.

Solution to Overcoming these Challenges

It is not possible to course correct hidden biases overnight with a few "quick fix awareness" training programmes. It would take years of sustained efforts on the part of management as well as employees to enable a more inclusive environment at the workplace for all. Organizations should also look at fostering greater accountability at the level of senior leadership to ensure effective implementation. This can create a culture of gender diversity throughout the organization. While standing by such a culture, there are a few things organizations can keep in mind while imparting training to uproot unconscious biases.

Adopt holistic guidance: When and organization begins to implement the percepts of its training into its daily functioning, it can inspire change among its employees. Organizations should go ahead and align the changes with business objectives to make it more substantive.

Identify the problem area: Even when all seems well, management needs to dig deep and pin point the area where the organization is lacking. Once the problem is identified, they can break it down into simpler, more achievable, measurable milestones for better implementation of prospective solutions. For instance, if an organization is excelling at female talent development programmes, it may not be doing well when it comes to nurturing them for leadership roles. To change this, the senior management team should assess where and how it can make the desired changes.

Closely review underlying assumptions: Hidden biases are based on underlying assumptions. When the organization closely examines these, it will realize how irrational they are. This way, it can help all its stateholders (from the senior-most managers to employees at the lowest rung and both men to women) to be more introspective regarding their underlying biases. That's the way in which individuals can begin to adopt a more inclusive mindset.

New-age learning management systems with state-of-the-art training content can help organizations bring about the aforementioned changes at scale for lasting cultural change. It is then that organizations can tap the female talent which stood underutilized till now and change the economic fabric of the country.

Heide Abelli

Customer Market Leader and GM - Leadership and Business, Skillsoft

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