Seven steps for smashing the glass ceiling

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Mara Swan says women demonstrate commitment to their work very differently to men. The number one barrier preventing women reaching leadership levels in corporate Australia is an entrenched male culture. An environment with merit-based performance; based on merit that was created by men, and shaped by…

ManpowerGroup's Mara Swan says women demonstrate commitment to their work very differently to men. Ben Rushton

The number one barrier preventing women reaching leadership levels in corporate Australia is an entrenched male culture. An environment with merit-based performance; based on merit that was created by men, and shaped by presenteeism rather than performance, means we are just not shifting the needle.

World Economic Forum data shows Australia ranks number one out of 124 when it comes to gender parity in the education of women, but 36 when it comes to economic participation and opportunity. While women enter the workforce at the same rate as men, by mid-career female representation declines.

There is a strong business imperative for improving female representation at leadership level: organisations with female directors perform better on share price, show a higher return on equity, have higher income growth and tend to have less debt and higher valuations.

In emerging markets, including BRICS nations, female representation at leadership level is leapfrogging major markets to gender parity – without the need for compulsory quotas or legislation.

Concept of 'One Life'

ManpowerGroup recently undertook a qualitative research study of global leaders to understand what prevents women from progressing into senior leadership roles, and importantly, to understand the solutions to overcome these barriers.

Almost half of the emerging leaders (Millennials) surveyed said they do not expect to see gender parity in the workplace until they are in their late 40's and early 50's: female emerging leaders said 22 years, while emerging male leaders said 20 years. We can't afford the proportion of women in senior management positions to continue to flat line. The gender gap in labour market participation is impacting productivity and competitiveness.

The research showed that when it comes to corporate leadership, women don't want charity, they want a level playing field: a one-size-fits one model that provides flexibility to manage "One Life" – the integration and balance of work and home life. They want the opportunity to show their potential, know that they can raise their hand and that people will listen to them. Unfortunately, most business decisions are made by established leaders in the organisation; the majority of whom are men.

The research also highlighted some stark differentiators on what both men and women thought they would need to do to advance to senior leadership positions. Emerging and established female leaders believed relationships, networking, and mentors were key. In contrast, emerging and established male leaders highlighted leadership skills and performance.

Both of these viewpoints are concerning. Although mentoring might make women comfortable in an organisation, sponsorship has proven to be far more effective in helping them progress to senior management roles. What's the difference? Mentors offer a sounding board, advice and guidance, whereas sponsors offer critical feedback, guidance, and most importantly will stick their neck out and publicly support the individual. Often in a male entrenched culture performance is based on presenteeism and measures created by established male leaders. These may demand long hours and significant travel – both which will be barriers to emerging women leaders with young families. It demonstrates that overall, women are "surviving" not "thriving," and that men continue to value traditional career paths.

How do we change corporate culture to make it more inclusive, and shorten the time to gender parity at leader level? More than anything it will be when we value all people.

You can't be what you can't see

If women are to truly believe they can lead in their organisation, they need 'real' role models whose career trajectory can be tracked and understood. They need to see more women at the top.

A good example is Cindy Batchelor, Executive General Manager for NAB Business. Joining NAB in 2003 as managing director, people and communications for its Wholesale Banking division, Cindy has since moved through the ranks to EGM, a position she has held for 18 months. But she didn't get there by waiting for a promotion; she actively pursued the role, with the confidence and understanding that she was capable of success.

Ms Batchelor is passionate about being an advocate for diversity and an example of that is her sponsorship of the Start Counting program – a behavioural change program that empowers women to build strong money and life habits. That is in addition to her influential role on the Business Bank leadership team comprising more than 50 per cent women and headed by Business Bank Group Executive Angela Mentis.

At a recent event that ManpowerGroup held in conjunction with NAB, Ms Batchelor had the following advice for the women in attendance: "Everything you need, you can learn, you just need the courage to put yourself in the position, or ask for the opportunity. Understand your strengths and surround yourself with people that are good at what you aren't."

Seven vital steps

What organisations really need to consider is how they reach the tipping point of diversity to achieve "Conscious Inclusion". I believe there are seven vital steps.

1. Change yourself. Believe it or don't bother.

Change must be authentic. If not, people see it as a fad that's here today, gone tomorrow.

Further, women themselves must stop convincing themselves that it is harder than it is. Emerging women leaders must put themselves in a position to compete in a challenging profit and loss (P&L) role. Changing your mindset is the only way to change your career, if you don't believe it you won't change at all.

Having a sponsor in a position of influence and who is vested in your development can be highly beneficial. They can help women work out what you need to do to get to your goal. However, no one will be willing to put their reputation on the line unless they are confident of your abilities. That belief must come internally first, and sometimes you may have to ask for sponsorship.

Further, when you do step into that role, don't be afraid to negotiate the support that you'll need around you to deliver positive results for the organisation.

2. Leadership has to own it; don't delegate it

CEOs and C-suite leaders must champion change.

The push to improve representation of women in leadership positions must come from the top: passing the challenge to HR will not work, they are there to support and facilitate. This will involve change in how they verbally communicate to the organisation, their personal actions, how they align company policy, and ensure their efforts to improve equality are measurable. Support should be backed by the next two or three levels of management to ensure sustainability.

3. Flip the question –ask "why not?"

Flip the question and make it affirmative. What would it take to make it work? If it's not going to happen now, then when? If it's not this role or position, which one will it be?

Leaders also need to take a look at the succession plan and ensure there are enough women there. If there's not, it's about making a conscious action to develop women to ensure they are represented in the future.

4. Hire people that value people

There is far too much unnecessary emphasis on policy and procedure around workplace flexibility. Organisations must hire people that support 'One Life.'

Our research showed that women demonstrate commitment very differently to men. Emerging women leaders asked to be interviewed between 8:30-9pm, after they had put their children to bed. Established women leaders and emerging male leaders asked to be called between 6 and 7am, before their workday commenced. In contrast, established male leaders asked to be called during their workday.

This highlights how much weight 'presenteeism' in perceived workplace contribution. The rapid emergence of technology should change this. Business leaders and managers must enable employees the flexibility to do their job when and where it suits them, and measure on outcomes, not presenteeism. We need to redefine success so that it's based on career waves instead of career lattices, and performance instead of visibility, location or work hours.

5. Promote a culture of Conscious Inclusion

Generic programs do not work. The last three decades prove this. Programs don't change behaviours and don't improve the numbers. They can even breed complacency, rewarding activity not the results. Accountability sits with senior leadership and decision makers to promote a culture of Conscious Inclusion. HR can help leaders facilitate change; training can raise awareness. Leaders must change the culture.

Instead of leaders using 'leadership programs' as a "tick a box" approach to showcase as their perceived commitment to women, they need to promote a culture of Conscious Inclusion where people make decisions with the conscious intent to include women.

Training can increase awareness, but leaders must change the culture – with the support of HR.

6. Be explicit: women when and where?

Current business leaders must change their behaviour: they must expect women to be represented across all business units in the company. Looking at total numbers is not good enough – it results in "pink ghettos," where women are over-represented in certain sectors, and under-represented in P&L and staff roles.

This will require current leaders to have career conversations with emerging female leaders, where women are coached, sponsored and exposed to leadership experiences.

Further, current leaders must change their language to say "when you become a leader" instead of "if".

7. Be accountable and set measurable outcomes

True change takes time, focus and discipline. Organisations must set a strategic plan that outlines how you will achieve change, and by when. If this fails to happen, Conscious Inclusion and gender parity won't happen.

We have been talking about improving the rate of women in leadership forever, and every generation hopes the next one will fix it. It's time to give hope to future business women and achieve it. The day we reach gender parity will be the day we don't have to differentiate 'women' leaders at all: the day we can talk about all leaders as equals.

Women hold up half the sky. They deserve parity at leadership level.

Mara Swan is executive vice president, global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup

AFR Contributor


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