One day before International Women's Day and a planned women's strike, a bronze statue of a Fearless Girl appeared daring Wall Street's famous Charging Bull. She was fierce. She was bold. She was in charge. I shared her photo with my two daughters who instantly fell in love and kinship with this bronze girl who represented hope for them and their futures. The statue was perfectly placed in its temporary home by State Street Global Advisers to raise awareness of gender inequity on corporate boards. "Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards, and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action," State Street Global Advisors CEO Ron O'Hanley said in a statement.
While this beautifully executed awareness campaign is one step in a larger movement to support women moving into senior leadership roles across the workforce, in my work on the ground with women leaders individually and within organizations, I continue to see a disconnect between words and actions. Employers want to help. They're putting new policies in place, but they're stuck in cultures that are slow to understand the levers that can make an impact and deliver on changes once they're understood.
Based on the trends I see in my work with women, what makes them consciously choose to stay in junior and mid-level roles and what drives them to opt-out of the workforce altogether, I've highlighted five focus areas where employers can further support their female workforce and create cultures that are amenable to women rising to leadership roles within organizations.
1. Support self-promotion and the development of personal brands
The high achieving women I see aced their academic lives. They graduated with honors from prestigious schools. In essence, they followed the rules. As many of us have learned, following the rules and doing good work is not what drives success in the workplace. It's part of it, sure, but there's something else that generally speaking—men do naturally and women loathe: self-promotion. Self-promotion has become my anthem when I speak of women in leadership. See my 5 Commandments Of Self-Promotion. It is imperative to plant the seeds of your great work early and often if you want to build a personal brand within and outside of your organization. In order to do this, employers can provide and support opportunities for emerging women leaders to attend conferences, speak on panels and present their work within the organization. Public speaking is a key component to most senior roles. Gaining practice and comfort with it early in a career, as well as leveraging the exposure of presenting as an expert, can become a solid infrastructure for success.
2. Focus on long-term professional development
Many of the women I coach are hungry to learn new skills and are ready for new opportunities, but they fear having long-term growth conversations with their leaders. This leaves them to either stay too long in a role or begin to look elsewhere, which can be daunting when they have some flexibility in a company after a long tenure. Often times when they do have these conversations, they feel as if they've hit a brick wall. Many employers are focused on the needs of the here and now, the business goals of the current role—which makes sense given the intensive demands placed on organizations and leaders to perform. But—this approach produces creative stagnation and drives employee engagement to plummet. It does not prompt employees to want to grow within their organizations and it negates any vision they may have to rise to senior ranks. While I work with my clients to become leaders and drivers of their own careers, the culture of their companies plays a critical role in supporting this kind of thinking and growth mentality. People evolve and want to focus on their strengths and interests. Skilled leaders open the door to ongoing growth conversations and they think outside of their own project needs to include what's best for the employee overall.
3. Take Unconscious Bias seriously
This one keeps me up at night. Often when women begin to advocate for themselves, speak up in meetings, provide feedback, act with the authority their titles should command, [insert any leadership quality here]—they are met with resistance, stereotypes and a backlash that would not be received by male leaders at their level. Women can build up their inner strength and confidence with a coach like me, but if they continue to hit walls within their companies, change will not be possible. Organizations like Google and Facebook are leading the way with "Unconscious Bias" trainings that are not only available to their organizations, but also publicly available so that other organizations can learn and implement a similar approach. As with any corporate culture shift, there must be senior leadership awareness and buy-in that bias is currently an issue and that it must be addressed with training and accountability for every employee.
4. Create open communication about work-life balance
Find out what's important to your employee. Maybe it's being home for a family dinner and getting back online when the kids go to bed. Perhaps it's a no 9 am meetings rule. (Most working mom's have moved mountains at home and then added a commute on top of it to make a 9 am meeting). Or maybe it's the ability to completely go offline over the weekend. It's different for everyone, so it's important for employees to feel safe enough to discuss what makes life manageable and dare I say meaningful with their leaders so that they can come up with a plan that works for both parties.
5. Build cultures where mistakes are possible
One of the biggest trends I see holding my clients back is perfectionism. The need to double, triple and quadruple check every minute detail can be the killer of both creativity and productivity. While I'm a proponent of high quality work, I see many women setting unattainable expectations for not only themselves but also their direct reports. These out of reach standards can lead to a hesitance in delegating tasks, keeping women leaders handling more junior level assignments instead of focusing on strategic initiatives that will keep them on the rising track. When employers create cultures that allow humans to be humans, flaws and all—employees have the space to move beyond the pressure and the perfectionism that keeps them running in place.
While I work alongside many other coaches, organizational development professionals, writers, women's networking organizations and leadership institutes (and the list goes on…) in this march toward gender equality, there's a world of difference employers can make even beyond the longer Parental Leave policies they're beginning to implement. Parental leave is important, but it can't and it shouldn't be the only topic of conversation when it comes to a gender disparity in leadership. In kick-starting discussion around the above five points, you can make a difference. It may take a permanent installation of a fierce little girl challenging a bull that is five times her size to continue to make the point, but that's where we're at right now. So hands on hips, ladies, and let's do this thing.