Learning Lab excerpt: Achieving gender balance in leadership

The Learning Lab online platform features a Leadership Development Program with various topic channels, including Women & Leadership. This content is excerpted from the Developing Women Leaders course.

A 2017 study published by the Academy of Management had women and men make exactly the same suggestions about how to drive change in an organization, but only the men were perceived as “exhibiting leadership.”

In order to combat this type of unconscious bias, organizations need to educate all employees about gender bias; cultivate a climate where gender prejudice can be discussed openly, particularly among top management teams; and develop strategies for achieving a better gender balance, not just at the executive level but in the types of roles that lead to high-level positions.

Leadership expert Herminia Ibarra from the London Business School describes this systemic challenge.

…what tends to happen, the more you move up in an organization, by the time you get to the middle level, women are found, statistically, disproportionately in staff roles — in backroom roles — and those are not the ones that lead to the top. Now, what’s happening there?

Organizations are just now starting to think that they really need to track what are those roles and to really count — not just how many women do we have at this level and that level — but how many do we have line and staff, or strategic and support. And once you start to see that, then you can attack the systems that actually funnel, maybe unconsciously, men in one direction and women more in the other. But it’s really important to see that it all starts with those mission-critical roles, which are the grooming grounds for senior manager.

Most organizations would benefit from looking at their gender balance across the organization and examining the impact of their policies and practices. For example, supporting work-life balance can have a positive effect on all employees, but organizations need to ensure that employees who make use of flexible options are not penalized or overlooked.

In addition, research shows that providing supportive spaces for women to talk about feedback and development can help them progress as leaders. It’s also important to offer mentorship and sponsorship programs so that women can get the benefit of advice and support from other leaders.

Ensuring that there’s a level playing field for women and men on the road to leadership is not just good for the individuals involved, it’s also a key part of making sure your organization is making the best use of all of its resources and fostering a more equitable gender balance in leadership.

Winter 2020 | Return to Issue Home