As the best-selling co-author of How Women Rise, and a world-renowned women’s leadership development consultant & speaker, Sally Helgesen helps women from across the globe aspire to become successful leaders in today’s workplace. While many factors contribute, organizations play a critical role to fostering women in management positions. Here, she gives us some practical advice on how companies can create gender parity in leadership, as well as tips for aspiring women leaders and how their male counterparts can support them in this endeavor.
How can organizations ensure that their female talent has the needed tools to become leaders?
One of the most critical elements to ensure women have the tools they need to rise to leadership positions is forming a culture that thrives on inclusion–– a culture that people speak of in terms of we, not they. This doesn’t happen unless senior leaders are engaged, and their engagement is always going to be manifest in their behaviors. This is best demonstrated by giving people at every level maximum opportunity to have a voice in strategic decisions that they will be expected to implement rather than isolating people according to an industrial model of strategy versus execution, heads versus hands.
It’s also important to give senior leaders the information they need to assess women based not only on their contributions, but also on their potential. I recommend creating a culture of coaching by providing resources and training for peer coaching networks and teaching the skills of informal coaching recruitment.
Leaders should also be very clear that the path to influence rests on visibility and connections, as well as expertise. And they should create opportunities for women to build and practice these skills.
How can organizations promote gender parity?
There are a multitude of ways that organizations can achieve this. First steps must include assuring transparency in the promotion process. It’s also important to create robust support networks for women that also include men, and that emphasize the development of strategic leadership skills as opposed to domain expertise. Offer opportunities for sponsorship but don’t present sponsorship as the only effective means of building support and visibility. Commit to achieving robust targets for every level of leadership. Also, be wary of potential roadblocks within existing leadership: recognize that second and third tier leaders who are skeptical of commitments to diversity and inclusion can undermine most well-intended and well-funded efforts.
What advice would you give women aspiring to take on leadership positions?
Don’t be afraid to speak freely about your aspirations- let people know what you intend to achieve. Also, it’s fine to apply for a more prominent positions, even if you don’t feel you can check all the boxes or meet all the skills required. You don’t need to have fully mastered the job you have before you are ready to move on.
It’s also very important for women to let go of trying to be perfect or trying to please everyone. Enlisting allies actively from the start of your career, both within your organization and outside of it, can have a big impact in the long run by assuring you have visibility and support built in. And it might seem like a simple tip, but it’s a useful one: don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What advice would you give to men who want to encourage gender parity in the workforce?
Men have a key role to play in encouraging gender balance. A lot of times the first step is simply becoming familiar with the internal and external barriers that hold women back from reaching their full potential. It’s also important for men to get active in mentoring women and be respectful but frank when giving feedback. Men should also question their own assumptions about what a leader looks like. And finally, men often need to get better at listening! Really listen to what female colleagues are saying, what frustrations they are dealing with, and so forth – often this can open up a more balanced dialogue.
Learn how organizations can develop female talent by watching our webinar.