While women have been making huge strides in the workplace, we still have a long way to go before women are well-represented at the highest levels of most organizations. "According to a survey of top leaders from mid-market businesses throughout the U.S., only 22% of senior managers in 2014 were women” (Pew Research Center). I’ve been excited to learn that many of our clients are actively pursuing strategies to promote women in leadership in their organizations; some have formed lunch groups for women throughout the organization to network and mentor one another, and others have HR initiatives aimed at developing leadership programs specifically for women.
Having women in leadership positions isn’t just about shattering the glass ceiling; there are real benefits for the company as well. According to a study cited in Forbes, "The companies that perform best financially have the greatest numbers of women in leadership roles.” Additionally, according to Gallup, teams managed by women are also more engaged. Their research findings are interesting: “Employees who work for a female manager are six percentage points more engaged, on average, than those who work for a male manager. Female employees who work for a female manager are the most engaged; male employees who report to a male manager are the least engaged.”
If women leaders can help companies perform better financially and attain higher levels of employee engagement, what’s keeping women out of leadership roles? The answer to that is complicated - it isn’t just a question of having the right skills or the desire to advance (reasons many cite for not promoting women into leadership positions more regularly.) According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, "A significant body of research… shows that for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.” The authors argue that companies need to do more than the usual mentoring and leadership development programs to help women overcome this subtle, often unconscious bias that often prevents them from advancing in their careers. The authors suggest some great advice for companies, and I recently read a blog post from our friends at VitalSmarts (by David Maxfield, one of the authors of Crucial Conversations) with some additional tips for overcoming unconscious gender bias in the workplace.
4 Tips to Overcome Gender Bias In the Workplace:
- Speak Up: It can be tempting to let little things go and not pay attention to subtle gender bias in the workplace. Make bias explicit when you notice it; “the goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect,” according to Maxfield. The authors of the HBR article agree; when women are able to recognize bias, “they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects.”
- Create Safety: Finding the right way to address gender bias in the workplace can be tricky, and if you want to be heard, it is important not to put others on the defensive. Maxfield suggests to “Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise.” The authors of the HBR study go a step further and recommend “creating a safe setting - a coaching relationship, a women’s leadership program, a support group of peers” so that women can be vulnerable with each other and discuss difficult topics like gender bias and personal leadership challenges.
- Stick to Facts: Again, this will go a long way to diffuse defensiveness. Maxfield recommends some specific skills for addressing gender bias: “Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you can both learn." You can see how this would be more effective than just accusing someone else of being sexist.
- Focus on Purpose: Much unconscious gender bias comes from how women are perceived in the workplace; rather than focusing on managing others’ perceptions of things like appearance, how women speak, or their leadership style, the HBR authors recommend shifting the focus to their leadership purpose. “Anchoring in purpose enables women to redirect their attention toward shared goals and to consider who they need to be and what they need to learn in order to achieve those goals.”
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