Women in Tech
Just 24 per cent of respondents to a recent Skillsoft survey reported that they felt their organisations had a strategy in place to develop women leaders.

Whilst there may be unofficial women’s groups within companies, often programmes specifically designed for female development are not implemented. This seems a counterintuitive business strategy when research shows that getting more women into leadership positions can make a significant difference to the bottom line.

In 2012, Bloomberg published a study of 2,360 companies, conducted by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, which compared company financial results based on the makeup of leadership teams. It found that companies with a market capitalisation of more than $10 billion and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 per cent worldwide. DDI, a global human resources firm, also found that in the top 20 per cent of companies – in terms of financial performance – 37 per cent of their leaders were women. In the bottom 20 per cent, women comprised just 19 per cent of the leadership.

More than 9 out of 10 of respondents in Skillsoft’s recent survey agreed that there is a lack of women in leadership. Most companies have a lot of capable women who simply are not making it into leadership roles, and organisations cannot afford to underutilise this significant percentage of their workforce. The key question that needs to be answered is how to best use this untapped resource, which comprises almost half of the country’s total workforce.

Businesses need to ensure talent pipelines are realising the full potential of the female workforce. The best performing companies in this area are taking small, simple, yet effective steps to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions.

 Implementing change

 Tapping into this talent requires changes across the board. This includes changing behaviour, process and the culture within an organisation. Companies have had some success by fostering greater senior leader accountability, by becoming less biased in decision-making processes and by changing their cultures to be more inclusive. In reality, however, there is often a lot of talk and little action.

The 2016 McKinsey ‘Women in the Workplace’ report found that approximately 75 per cent of US CEOs felt gender diversity was a priority. But is this reflected within the organisations? When Skillsoft conducted primary research on the topic, 71 per cent of respondents felt that their organisations were not doing enough to address the lack of women in senior leadership roles.

While the intention to change is often present, when attempting to implement strategies, good intentions often meet a lack of will across an organisation. A variety of common factors contribute to the ineffectiveness of change efforts.

 Addressing the gender gap

HR leaders are often pressured to deliver results that demonstrate they are addressing the gender gap. They need to produce evidence that programmes are in place and projects are underway. Many efforts do in fact produce useful outcomes, but they often fall short of their full potential because they are not fully integrated into the organisation. When training is not consistent, widespread and fully integrated into the culture of an organisation, it can very easily turn into a check box activity.

Women’s leadership training has a much higher efficacy when integrated the whole organisation. Too often, a selected group of women are offered sporadic professional development opportunities, where they attend one or a few sessions without any specific follow-up, measurement of progress, or any attempt to link the programme to particular leadership skill gaps. Women return to their daily work environment, and due to lack of on-going reinforcement and environmental support required to cement any changes, the organisation as a whole fails to make any meaningful change.

 Identifying areas to change

Women often predominate in human resources and marketing but are less represented in operations, finance, R&D and other areas of the business. Some businesses do exceptionally well at talent development, but struggle with promotion. Others excel at helping women get into positions of power but face challenges in keeping them there. Identifying what the organisation already does well and where it needs to change enables the challenge to be broken down into more manageable aspects. These can be assessed, changed and measured for success against specific progress criteria.

Myriad changes have been identified as effective, including expanding the talent pipeline in recruitment, job diversity, and middle and senior leadership by broadening where the talent is identified. By identifying and changing the unconscious biases embedded in the decision-making processes around talent, mind-sets will open up and women are empowered to realise they are capable of moving into positions of leadership. Continued professional growth and development, including focused training with follow-up and implementation support, then helps ensure these benefits are sustained.

Starting small

Widespread, lasting changes are not easy to make. Large organisations are often successful at creating lasting change by starting the process with one team, in a single business unit or defined area of the organisation. They learn what works, and the effort can then be scaled into other areas of the organisation.

Businesses need to start small to provide an opportunity to experiment and create a comfortable pace of change. Commitment to company-wide leadership programmes that are relevant, time efficient and flexible is key. Leadership education must focus on key competencies required for career growth at all levels. To meet the time demands of all workers, education programs should be efficient and tailored to fit the experience level of each employee. Starting small creates built-in change agents for a wider rollout and means everyone can become comfortable with the pace of change. It also yields examples that can be shared organisation-wide to increase understanding and reduce resistance. Like any area of sustained change though, the development of women for leadership roles requires continuous, on-going education.

About the author

This article was provided by Tony Glass, VP and GM EMEA at Skillsoft.