This originally appeared in Entrepreneur on May 9, 2019.
Whether or not they're going all the way to space, there's a lot of science behind getting women to the top.
What better way to shatter a glass ceiling than by leaving the atmosphere altogether? The first all-woman spacewalk this March is a testament to just how far we’ve come.
Down on Earth, though, we still have a long way to go. Barriers to progress remain frustratingly solid. Governments and businesses continue to introduce initiatives to get more women to the top, yet an EY report demonstrates that progress remains slower than it should be.
What’s the holdup? A massive study from Peterson Institute for International Economics, which studied 21,980 firms in 91 countries, found that businesses with women in the C-suite are more profitable than those without. Clearly, the issue isn’t one of performance.
Women deserve legitimate shots at leadership roles. To realize those gains, however, they need more support from their employers.
A smarter way forward
Some critics have argued that women’s lack of workplace progress arises from differences in biological wiring. That’s not the case: New research from Tel-Aviv University indicates that male and female brains are the same, suggesting that cultural biases (not biological inclinations) are to blame.
Almost from the moment they’re born, adults teach girls and boys to value and pursue different things (baby dolls with pink bows instead of race cars with blue stripes). Misperceptions and siloed gender roles, not natural ineptitude, steer women away from STEM and finance fields and into more traditionally female fields, such as nursing and primary education. That limits female participation on corporate boardsin a lot of industries, according to research compiled by Catalyst. The women who do pursue work in nontraditional fields find themselves facing an entirely new set of obstacles, all of which conspire to keep them out of the boardroom.
Cultural changes won’t come easily. Most people continue to associate leadership with masculine traits, even though successful women don’t need to sacrifice femininity to be effective CEOs and leaders. To combat the bias against women at work, businesses must deliberately help women build ladders to the top.
Facilitate women’s leadership through action
Words alone won’t bridge the leadership divide. To fix the issue and get more women in the leadership roles they deserve, companies should change the way they recruit, retain and empower their best overlooked employees.
1. Crack the books. Big data is all the rage, so use that data-powered mindset to yield inclusive leadership, too.
In 2015, global pharmaceutical company Lilly discovered a dramatic shortage of women in company leadership roles. Despite having a workforce that was split almost evenly between the sexes, women held only 20 percent of top-level positions. Only by uncovering the problem could Lilly’s management begin to correct it.
Follow Lilly’s lead, and conduct an in-depth analysis of your workplace representation to start the process. Don’t settle for simple demographics. Find out where the company fails to give women equal chances, and use that information to address the problem. For Lilly, the problem seemed to be that women weren’t getting promoted, so the company vowed to change that. In 2017, women made up 61 percent of those elevated to senior director positions, and the company has increased its cohort of top-ranking women to 43 percent.
2. Set the intention. Create a deliberate strategy to bring more women to the top. Don’t stop at vice presidential roles: Carve a path that leads directly from frontline employee to C-suite executive. Facilitate this growth by recruiting more women during the hiring process.
“You can’t expect diversity to happen by osmosis or chance,” says Sarah Clark, CEO of public relations firm Mitchell. “You must establish deliberate initiatives to seek out more diverse voices. That means pointing your hiring compass toward people who are currently underrepresented.”
Spotify has made a point to become a leader in diversity. Though progress remains slow, one-third of Spotify’s board now consists of women. The company attributes some of that progress to the more than 100 talent outreach programs it’s used to identify and recruit underrepresented talent.
3. Cast your line where the fish are. The best way to get more women into leadership roles is to recruit great women in the first place. However, not all companies understand the importance of equal opportunities. To find the best women, look for places where women congregate, such as women’s colleges and professional organizations.
Yelp discovered that targeted recruiting addressed the gender gap far better than blind hiring tactics. Whereas blind tactics still implicitly favored white men over other demographic representations, targeted recruiting on college campuses led to a dramatic increase in inclusive representation. Most notably, Yelp saw an 80 percent increase in engineering roles held by women.
The “Women in the Workplace 2018” report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey argues that companies should limit their number of “onlys” -- women alone in groups of men. In these situations, women often feel isolated or pressured to act a certain way.
Hilton tackled this problem by forming communities of underrepresented people at work to gather and talk about the issues they face. These groups helped Hilton expand parental leave and flexible work policies, reducing turnover and giving women the flexibility they needed to showcase their skills.
Women don’t just deserve more opportunities to advance -- they’ve earned them. Now, it’s up to businesses to fight unconscious biases and provide women with the resources and pathways they need to make the most of their talents.