Advancing women leaders

Despite 30-plus years of attention and effort, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions across nations, sectors, industries and organization types. Although there has been progress at senior levels in our biggest corporations, gender equity in the workplace remains a distant aspiration.

Beyond leadership representation and equity, women consistently report being undervalued, underrecognized and underdeveloped as leaders. And for women of color and other marginalized intersectional identities — such as women with a disability and LGBTQ women — inclusion and leadership-advancement often seem even more unattainable.

The reasons for this underrepresentation and undervaluing are well documented in academic literature and business press. These point to the complex interplay of individual, interpersonal, organizational, occupational, industry and societal/cultural factors that pose barriers and biases — often subtle and inadvertent — to women’s advancement and thriving in the workplace.

What, then, can move the needle?

To date, most organizational efforts have been directed toward enabling individual women to better equip themselves for career advancement by becoming more intentional in developing leadership skills and promoting their visibility as leaders — the so-called “fix the women” approach. Through our coaching and leadership development of women, we have seen women leaders employ several individual strategies to advance their careers, such as:

  • By educational attainments
  • Developing expertise in niche areas
  • Demonstrating confidence and voicing leadership aspiration
  • Building internal and external networks and allies
  • Engaging in self-advocacy
  • Engaging in efforts to stay balanced and resilient

These individual strategies have yielded some success for some women, but our research and interventions over the past two decades show that placing the onus for women’s advancement on individual women cannot eradicate longstanding, pervasive and systemic biases and barriers embedded in everyday business structures, routines and practices.

Instead, to move the needle, organizations and institutions must strategically implement simultaneous, strategic, multilevel, multidimensional and well-resourced change initiatives — i.e., a “fix the organization” approach. And these initiatives must be aimed concurrently at improving women’s workforce participation and leadership representation, redressing gender inequities and creating intentionally inclusive workplaces.

Systemic gender equity transformation consists of simultaneously implementing organizationwide initiatives such as:

  • Proactive talent management and succession planning, especially by providing stretch assignments and developmental opportunities for women
  • Providing mentors, coaches and sponsors to prepare women leaders and advocate for them when key decisions are being made
  • Providing tactical training in allyship to all managers and supervisors in the workplace
  • Bringing women together for networking and support
  • Collecting and using organizational data to inform decision-makers just-in-time about gender-based workforce patterns

In the process of such transformation, the workplace improves for women leaders and indeed, all employees. ●

Diana Bilimoria is KeyBank Professor and Chair of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management

Diana Bilimoria

KeyBank Professor and Chair of Organizational Behavior
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