7 Ways You Can Support Women in Leadership

Woman in a business suit and hijab leading a business meeting.

If your organization has struggled to hire and retain women leaders, you’re not alone. Even though gender diversity in management improves innovation, employee engagement and retention rates, and profit margins, men still outnumber women by large ratios at the highest leadership levels in most workplaces.

Women earn more than half the college and advanced degrees awarded in the United States and have made gains in overall workforce participation. So why do the numbers for women in executive roles remain so disappointing?

Disparities begin at the first promotion level, when they’re less likely to cultivate the kind of relationships with company leadership that can aid in career advancement. From there, challenges mount at each stage of advancement, particularly at mid-career when women are more likely to ease up on their careers or even leave the workforce to shoulder caregiving responsibilities.

Armed with this information, there are steps employers can take to address these challenges and increase the number of women in leadership.

1. Focus on Promotion at the Early Management Level

Employers have focused resources and attention on recruiting women and men in equitable numbers, but more can be done to determine how to support women in the workplace in ways that will increase the number of women in leadership.

Men begin to break away from women at the first promotion level, when women are far less likely to put themselves forward or to be tapped by their direct supervisors for increased responsibility.

To address this systemic issue, you need to set goals for recruiting and promoting women at all levels, with a focus on entry-level management. Make recruitment, retention, and promotion of women part of performance criteria for all managers and executives in your company. Assess progress on this goal frequently by celebrating progress and being transparent when you fall short.

2. Support Women’s Professional Goals

Research shows that women receive higher performance assessments than men do. But there’s one key metric where women rank lower: leadership potential.

Supervisors are more likely to assume women are not interested in leadership roles, maybe because men are more likely to bring up their career goals in one-on-one meetings with supervisors. Women are also less likely than men to apply for promotions that they don’t think they are 100 percent qualified for.

Even when they are promoted into management, women in leadership roles face gender-based biases, such as being interrupted more often during meetings and presentations.

Antibias training, especially for managers who write performance reviews and have a say in promotions, can increase inclusion. Encourage managers to have conversations with high-achieving women employees about their career aspirations.

Whenever you have an open management position, make sure that:

  • The job description doesn’t read like an impossible-to-fulfill wish list of attributes that might dissuade qualified women from applying.
  • There are internal women candidates still in the running for the position at the final stages of your hiring process.

3. Provide Flexibility

Caregiving—for children and other family members—still falls disproportionately on women. This means many women are unable to devote the hours and energy they would like to building their careers. Others end up leaving the workplace entirely.

Employers can ease these pressures for all employees facing caregiving challenges by offering flexible, remote, and hybrid work schedules. They can also sponsor flexible savings accounts (FSAs) to help pay for childcare and eldercare.

In addition, top leadership can model work-life balance by taking time off and resisting the urge to send work emails at all hours. Communicating to employees that boundaries are important and respected can go a long way toward avoiding the kind of burnout that can lead top-performing women to jump ship before you have the chance to promote them into positions of leadership.

4. Address Pay Inequities Across the Board

Women, even women in leadership roles, still make significantly less than men, and the discrepancies for women of color are even more dramatic. Ensuring more transparency and equity in compensation can increase your chances of retaining top-performing women with leadership potential. It can also help you comply with the increasing number of state and municipal regulations that require pay equity and transparency.

5. Encourage Mentoring, Sponsorship, and Allyship

For women to catch up with men as workplace leaders, they need mentors, allies, and sponsors. A growing number of employers are encouraging mentor-protégé arrangements. These close relationships pair someone at a higher level of leadership with someone more junior to provide general advice and guidance. Though a mentor can be a supervisor, they are just as likely to be in a different department or even another company.

A sponsor is someone with the power to further your career, who is convinced of your potential and can speak on your behalf when promotion decisions are made. Women are less likely to secure these types of relationships with upper levels of management than men are. Employers need to be aware of this dynamic and encourage leaders to look for opportunities to forge sponsorship relationships with junior staff.

Allyship takes place at the coworker level. An ally might be someone who women can feel safe sharing frustrations with, especially frustrations that are a consequence of gender bias. An even better way to promote gender equity and make women feel supported in your organization is to sponsor an employee resource group (ESG) that focuses on gender equity and encourage men to join. The relationships formed through collaborative action on behalf of gender equity can have long-lasting effects on your company’s DEI goals.

6. Recognize and Reward the Contributions That Women Make

Women in leadership are more likely to check in on team members and provide the kind of support that maximizes performance. They are also more likely to be involved with DEI initiatives, community outreach, and employee morale initiatives. All of this work benefits organizations. Unfortunately, none of this is considered in the metrics used by most employers for internal promotions.

Incorporate these categories of labor into your promotional metrics and it should move the needle on the number of women who move into management and leadership roles at your organization.

7. Normalize Nonlinear Career Paths

Even with all of these measures in place, many talented women—and men—will opt to interrupt their career trajectory at some point for a host of reasons. Health challenges, caregiving and family responsibilities, educational and philanthropic opportunities can all affect career paths.

Today’s employers need to recognize that candidates with leadership potential may come with gaps in their resumes, and that the experiences those gaps represent sometimes make them better leaders. Opening up your hiring and promotion screening process to candidates who have less linear career paths will likely increase your company’s gender diversity in leadership roles.

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