To transform leadership, we simply must increase the number of women leading. But how?

By Fabian Dattner

March 8, 2022

job interview
Gender equity happens when there is a strategy to address embedded biases in the employment cycle and a genuine commitment to making it happen. (Mangostar/Adobe)

It has been known for well over a decade that more women at the leadership table leads to better outcomes for all. Despite this knowledge, progress on gender equity in our workplaces and governing institutions has been slow.

Are incumbent leaders listening? Do they do enough to bring the change about? Are they willing to move over, step aside or even step down to make the space for women to lead?

More great leadership, and shared equally between men and women, is critical for shaping the future we want.

So how do we do it?

Gender equity happens when there is a strategy to address embedded biases in the employment cycle and a genuine commitment to making it happen

The world’s institutions and the systems we are governed by have been dominated by men for generations, reflecting the power base, attitudes and assumptions of the male perspective. What’s needed now is a fundamental shift in the way organisations attract, recruit, develop and retain women; a comprehensive strategy that effects real and sustainable change in gender equity.

Step 1: Attracting

To get more women into non-traditional and leadership roles, organisations need to get better at attracting their attention

Whether it’s to encourage more women into sectors where men traditionally outnumber women, or to attract more high-calibre women to boost the leadership pipeline and representation at the executive table, getting women in the door requires a multifaceted, targeted approach.

  1. Have a Gender Equity Strategy in place. When women can see an organisation has gender equity as a genuine priority, they are more likely to consider a future in that workplace.
  2. Build your organisation’s reputation as an employer of choice for women and promote what it has to offer – in language and via the platforms that women in engage with.

Manage a variety of recruitment strategies – e.g. setting gender targets, training to eliminate unconscious bias, creating placement opportunities – to encourage more women to apply for roles.

Step 2: Selection

Recruitment processes need a comprehensive makeover if women are to be given equal access

Unconscious bias trumps the best of intentions when it comes to recruiting women. Education and training of managers and recruitment personnel around embedded stereotypes and assumptions are critical, as is ensuring women are included in selection panels, and there’s a standard of gender-blind resume-screening.

Throughout the selection process, candidates will be looking for clues about the values and culture of your organisation in the language and behaviour of the selection team: is it inclusive, respectful, objective or dismissive, aggressive or narrow-minded?

If women are consistently unsuccessful in selection processes, or not accepting job offers, organisations should review what factors are at play – this includes following up with candidates to understand their experience.

Step 3: Development

Career and leadership development for women requires a will and a way.

Supporting the development of women, particularly into leadership roles, is crucial to achieving gender equity and redressing imbalances of representation. The measures required are both structural and process-oriented.

In terms of foundational structures, we’re talking about:

  • a strategically aligned leadership competency framework that objectively outlines the capabilities that will drive success by career level;
  • an objective and standardised evaluation and assessment process for leadership candidates;
  • setting gender targets, underpinned by plans of action to meet those targets; and
  • leadership development that looks beyond just senior levels and helps identify and accelerate women in the emerging phases of their career.

In terms of process, it’s about making development opportunities more equitable,  inclusive and accessible, including:

  • consideration of timing, mode and location of training;
  • providing support around family commitments;
  • encouraging and supporting internal and external networking for women; and
  • training leaders to dismantle stereotypes about the work women can do to be more inclusive and broad-ranging.

Step 4: Retention

An inclusive culture that engages, supports and empowers is key to employee retention.

Attracting and recruiting women are clearly important steps to achieving gender equity, but it’s equally important that those women choose to stay. They will generally do that if they are empowered to contribute, are equitably rewarded, see real opportunities for advancement, and feel engaged with the organisation and people they work with.

Leadership and culture are foundational in this; the creation of an inclusive culture, where diversity is truly valued and supported, and where people feel like they belong and can express their full potential, begins with leaders.

Gender inequalities are amplified when other layers of identity come into play

For the purposes of improving gender equity, ‘women’ and ‘men’ are the baseline categories of identification. However, this does not adequately recognise all the layers of identity that constitute the lived experience of a woman or man. Where any factors are different to what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘desired’ in a particular social system, they can become a basis for discrimination. Where these factors intersect, multiple forms of discrimination can result.

Fostering an inclusive culture is key to the success of any gender equity strategy – after all, people who feel they belong are more likely to stay with an organisation and be able to contribute their best. This means taking steps to ensure ‘difference’ is recognised and valued, language is inclusive and respectful, and discriminatory practices are called out and addressed – both within the organisation and elsewhere.

Great things are seldom achieved in isolation

The gender gap is so embedded in our institutions that it will require the mobilisation of many, working towards the same ends, to effect enduring change in the way we work and live. The more that organisations ‘show up’ in this space, the more it supports and encourages others to join. In this way, what one organisation does is amplified and can change the world for the better.

This is an extract from the whitepaper ‘Transforming Leadership – The art of increasing the number of women leading’ published by the Dattner Group. If you would like additional support on your gender equity journey, or to see the full whitepaper, please reach out to us at info@dattnergroup.com.au


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