Women Leadership: A Reason, a Caution, and a Bottom Line

women in leadership

On this International Women's Day, I want to celebrate women all around the world. This day makes me reflect on the strong women leaders in my life who have propelled my career and have forever changed me—for the better. I am so grateful to you. You know who you are.

Based on recent articles that struck me, I want to offer some considerations for propelling women into leadership roles. Let’s start with the current February 2017 stats. According to Catalyst, of the S&P 500 companies, 5.4% of CEOs are women, 9.5% of top earners are women, 19.9% of board seats are women, 25.1% of executive officers are women, and 36.4% of middle management are women. Given that the total employee base is 44.3% women, there is continual opportunity for women to rise to the higher managerial and leadership levels. These numbers have increased significantly in the last few years.

This is a complex topic that shouldn’t be oversimplified, and there are a few things that stand out to me in the subject’s growing body of knowledge. The reason: women leaders make your company more profitable (ahem, that’s good business). The caution: women want fair promotion processes, so you need to ensure yours are. The bottom line: women want competitive pay (actually, everyone does), so stop deflecting it.

First thing’s first—let’s talk about profit. There are multiple studies that show a direct relationship between more women in leadership and more profit. Referenced in a recent Forbes article, Tim Worstall shares this highlight:

Companies with 30% female executives rake in as much as six percentage points more in profits, according to a study, feeding into a global debate over the scarcity of women in decision-making business roles.The conclusion stems from a study of about 22,000 publicly-traded companies in 91 countries ranging from Mexico to Norway and Italy conducted by researchers at The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

There is a myriad of other reasons to have diversity of thought (with gender and other criteria) in leadership roles or in conversations for that matter. At Fierce, we talk about some other benefits in this whitepaper. But it holds true—companies that have more women senior leaders show more profits.

Secondly, be cautious about how you promote and develop the women on your team and in your organization. Make sure the processes are fair and are talked about. In a Harvard Business Review piece published last month, the authors discuss the role of rejection in corporate promotions and movement. While there is room to develop these hypotheses further, the initial results do have important implications. The article states:

For any company wanting to improve its gender diversity at the senior levels, the most important thing is to avoid the temptation to solely focus on encouraging more women to throw their hat into the ring. That approach misses the mark because it doesn’t address the underlying problem that female executives may feel that the company doesn’t truly believe that they belong in top management. This can be true whether or not the organization is actually contributing to that feeling. In fact, issuing blanket encouragements to women to apply for leadership positions could even backfire if it means the company ends up rejecting more women. Our research suggests this will make those women less likely to apply for similar jobs in the future, compounding the company’s gender problem.

This isn’t meant to be a deterrent from encouraging more women to “lean in” and get involved. However, it is a message to be intentional. You need to have conversations with women about their perception of how the organization and certain leaders perceive and promote women.

Thirdly, use pay as a strategy to keep younger women in your organization. They can’t be your leaders if they don’t have an incentive to stay. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why So Many ThirtySomething Women are Leaving Your Company,” they concluded two things: 1. Women care about pay. 2. Women and men leave organizations for similar reasons. This doesn’t just apply to thirtysomething women. Another misconception debunked in this piece is that women care more about work/life balance or other cultural elements in the organization than pay. That’s just not true. The needed action? Talk with your peers and leaders about compensation philosophy. This should be a cross-gender conversation, because the real question to answer is: how can we keep our most talented people here, regardless of gender?

There are so many ways that we as leaders can help support women leadership. Here are a few tips to promote the women in your life:

1. Have conversations about personal goals. If you would like to support a woman on your team, you absolutely must have the conversation to explore your opinions and hers. What does she want? Is this something she would like to pursue? If not, why? Dig deeper and get curious. What is her perception on the current promotion process?
2. Focus on your promotion and development processes. Take a good look at your processes and actively talk about them. Organizational insight is priceless—allow employees in all levels, positions, and departments to weigh in. The goal is to learn about the perception of promotion in your organization. You can make a better plan once you really understand.
3. Stop with your assumptions. Don't presume that women want more work/life balance or that they are asking for more flex time. Don’t make any assumptions about how men differ from women on your team. Ask the questions.
4. Offer training and support. For people to get to the next level, regardless of gender, access to resources and support is critical. Make a plan for potential mentorship, training, and/or access to opportunity. At Fierce, we deeply believe in self-directed learning, so have the employee take the steering wheel. As the leader, your job is to support the person, not do it for them.
5. Address compensation issues. As stated in the referenced HBR article, women care about pay, so discuss pay with her. Is she satisfied? What are her expectations? Are they being met? How can you help her navigate that if it isn’t your decision? It needs to be addressed, or you may lose her.

Following through with these tips requires conversation. Commit today to having the types of conversations with women who desire leadership positions. It may change their trajectory, and yours as well.

And please, turn to a woman leader in your life and share your appreciation for her.

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