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It’s about a sticky floor, not a glass ceiling


Gender discrimination is holding women back from the very start of their careers, long before they reach the supposed ‘glass ceiling’, says Mary-Rose Lines, who explains what HR can do to help women progress.

What caused the war for talent? Many things including demographic changes, globalisation, skills shortages and increased competition. Have any of those things gone away? No. Government and the media are talking about an end to the recession and the City seems to agree with them. When business does start to grow and invest again, we believe that the war for talent will rage again, and fiercer than ever. Companies will have to utilise all of the talent they have but it seems that organisations today are not fully utilising a critical and growing resource.
There is a clear business case for diversity, but unconscious gender discrimination may still be occurring in HR policies that identify, support, promote and evaluate future talent, such as succession planning or accelerated talent pools. That women are less represented at the highest levels of an organisation is well known, but we have found that the talent practices that are in place are more likely to perpetuate, than change the situation. If careers are like trains, it seems men are boarding the Intercity while women make do on the suburban line.
DDI’s global research, ‘Holding Women Back’, shows that women are being held back in their management careers long before they reach the supposed ‘glass ceiling’. The research analysed data from over 10,000 business leaders in 76 countries, including 3,800 women. It shows that significantly more women in the workforce is not translating into proportionately more women in leadership positions – and their numbers grow significantly smaller as the level of the leader increases. In industries dominated by men, most women fall off the management ladder well before reaching executive level, with just 7% of women at this level.

Make processes clear and open

Women may not even be aware they are at a disadvantage. For example the selection processes for high potential groups, talent pools and mentor schemes that help prepare employees for more senior roles are often shrouded in secrecy. Unclear nomination processes often result in a homogenous pool.
In contrast, good talent management strategies should be open, clear and gender-neutral. Good processes will automatically result in a diverse pool that reflects the make up of the wider employee and customer groups.

At the first level of management there are 28% more men than women receiving specialist development through high potential groups or talent pools. At executive level, this rises to 50% more men. Realistically, achieving gender parity is not just slow but impossible if organisations continue to select disproportionately more males for the high-potential programs that are the feeder pool for senior leadership. Placing women in high-level positions to satisfy affirmative action quotas or organisations policies without first providing them with the training and experiences they need to be successful sets them up for failure. Women also receive less support than men during career transition such as promotions or new roles.

If companies are to benefit from having a more diverse leadership, they have to develop the right talent management strategies to achieve this. It’s up to HR professionals to make the talent flourish. So what practical steps can HR people take to help women progress further?
Start by formalising succession planning, as those organisations that make formal plans to replace senior staff have more women in senior positions. As discussed companies without a plan rely on individual managers’ recommendations. These decisions are prone to biases and stereotypes.

Set up objective methods

Women must be taken seriously without feeling they need to provide more facts and prove everything they do is ‘better’ than their male counterparts. Organisations need to set up objective methods of performance management and use these tools to help determine recognition, reward and advancement. Recognising performance equally is one tool to help close the continuing pay gap and give women equal access to training and other development opportunities. The more strategic an organisation’s approach to development is, the greater the opportunity to make sure that men and women are treated equally. It’s especially important to assure that high-potential women have equal access to accelerated development experiences so that they are equally qualified in terms of experiences for promotions that arise.
Offer female employees access to international opportunities or international remits in their job. There are still assumptions women will not want opportunities abroad, despite the excellent development this provides. Our research shows that men are more than twice as likely as women to receive multinational leadership responsibilities, with 21% of male respondents reporting overseas scope in their role, compared to just 9% of women. Such experience does not necessary mean living abroad; it can involve working on projects or business units that require a great deal of collaboration with colleagues in multiple countries.
Ensure support during promotion or role change is effective and applied equitably. Leaders of both genders say that support for leadership transitions is needed, but women are receiving even less help during these transitions than men. Once again, formalisations of the transition support can result in more equal treatment of men and women.
And last but not least, make HR policies family-friendly. Flexible working and support with achieving work-life balance will benefit everyone in the organisation. On their part, women must also make their ambitions known and actively seek-out development opportunities, rather than waiting for them to land in their lap.
Organisations need to have objective, job-relevant procedures for identifying high potentials, assuring readiness for promotions, and making promotion decisions. The greater the objectivity built into selection and development decisions, the greater the opportunity for women to finally close the leadership gender gap. In order to determine the extent to which the programmes are working, organisations need to regularly measure their progress, including analyses of adverse impact against women. Building objective and high-quality talent management programmes will not only help women, but provide considerable value to organisations in their own right.
Mary-Rose Lines is a senior consultant at DDI UK, the talent management consultancy

3 Responses

  1. Commitment is not the same as presenteeism

    I believe one of the biggest barriers is the self selection made by women who decide that being a pioneer for new ways of working is just too stressful. In many organisations commitment is still measured by number of hours worked rather than results achieved; and work-life balance is seen as an individual woman’s (sic) responsibility. Until we take serious action to address these cultural norms nothing will change. In my years as a consultant specialising in work-life balance I’ve come across countless senior men who manage to combine successful leadership roles with family life. They often do this below the radar and win the admiration of their peers. Women on the other hand are judged to be neither a good mother or a good employee if they strive for the same balance.

  2. A bigger challenge?
    I have recently undertaken some research in my own organisation to understand why the leadership is male dominated. Our talent data is actually showing that the female population shows an equal opportunity for progression but that our ‘hopes’ for females do not seem to materialise. Further investigation maybe hitting a harder fact for us to deal with – Leadership roles by their nature are more demanding from a time perspective and these higher demands will unfairly advantage male candidates who often have more flexibility (through the balance of home responsibiliities) to provide the additional commitment expected. As one leader recently put it ‘Ability will get you so far but commitment is the real differentiator’. Flexible work patterns have high take up in my org (40%+) but are not prevalent at a leadership level. My challenge, as I see it, is what can you do to rebalance the opportunity. A saving grace is the fairly recent phenomena that more men are now making life over career choices – this may force the organisation to re-look on what they expect leaders to do to ensure that they get the most effective and talent people into leadership roles rather than just those that are prepared to sacrifice everything else for their career. A new world beckons!