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Four Ways Company Culture Can Support Women in Leadership

Cornerstone Editors

While more than 75 percent of CEOs say gender equality is part of their top 10 business priorities, women remain underrepresented across every level of the corporate pipeline—comprising just 37 percent of management positions and 19 percent of C-Suite positions, according to a recent study from McKinsey and

This gender disparity doesn't stem from the inability of women to perform at top levels. Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards had significantly higher returns on equity (53 percent), better sales (42 percent), and a two-thirds greater ROI than companies with all-male boards. Instead, a recent Bersin by Deloitte brief suggests that the problem comes down to culture: It turns out that most organizations simply do not provide an environment that supports diverse leaders or encourages everyone to strive for senior positions.

The lack of cultural support for minorities leads to decreased confidence, ultimately making it much more difficult for women to pursue leadership roles. Rather than addressing the existing problem as solely a gender balance issue, companies should work to create a culture of inclusion that fosters diversity and encourages everyone to strive towards leadership opportunities. Bersin by Deloitte research showed that organizations with strong cultures of leadership growth also happened to have the highest degree of gender diversity.

Here are four key practices your organization can adopt to help foster a culture that supports female employees throughout their career journeys, according to Deloitte's new research, "Addressing the Female Leader Paradox: Four Practices for Building a Supportive Culture."

1) Teach Employees About Diversity, Conflict and Bias

A strong organizational culture begins with education. Provide training and resources that teach employees how to handle topics such as diversity, conflict and bias. Creating an internal dialogue around these often controversial topics can help make employees aware of unconscious bias and discrimination in the workplace. By providing them with the skills to change behavior you encourage a positive shift in organizational attitude.

Eileen Scully, founder of The Rising Tides, a consulting firm focused on supporting women in the workplace, sees the impact learning and development opportunities can provide first-hand in her work. She cautions leaders to avoid making presumptions about the influence of someone's personal life on their professional ambitions.

"Work intensely with your hiring and promoting managers to negate the internal dialogues that may prohibit women from advancing such as, 'she just got married,' or 'she's going to have a baby soon,' so let's invest in someone else," Scully says.

2) Listen to Career Concerns and Desires

After education, listening is the next step in building a strong organizational culture. Create a two-way dialogue where female employees feel comfortable discussing their career concerns and desires, then use this information when designing and shaping pathways to leadership.

Katerina Trajchevska, CEO of Adeva, a tech startup that helps businesses hire and retain top talent, says women are treated equally when everyone's voice feels heard. "Rather than creating a culture centered on supporting female leadership, create a culture that supports leadership in general and encourages people to speak up and take initiative. That is an environment where women are actually treated equally, where they get to face their challenges and thrive," she explains.

3) Proactively Create an Inclusive Culture

Inclusive cultures emphasize integrity and collaboration and encourage everyone to achieve their potential, while supporting others along the way. One way to do this is through a mentorship program, as such relationships can lead to guidance, opportunity and advice that HR can't always provide.

Scully recommends encouraging company veterans with 10 or more years of experience in the workplace to identify and sponsor younger rising stars. If your staff skews young, you can also look to outside mentorship resources, such as Everwise, which connects mentors and mentees across organizations.

4) Set and Measure Diversity and Inclusion Goals

Lastly, create measurable diversity and inclusion goals. While most companies track the representation of women, only 44 percent set pipeline targets for gender diversity and even fewer set targets for external hiring and promotions, the McKinsey and study found. Examples of tracking metrics your organization can use include: gender representation of external candidates for hire, salary differences in comparable positions by gender and assignment of high-visibility projects by gender.

By creating clear goals, you can easily track progress and tangibly see how your efforts are paying off. It's also important to be transparent about the results you see and to hold leaders accountable for creating plans to reach their goals. Remember, there's no one-size-fits all when it comes to diversity goal setting; it will take trial and error to find what works best.

Photo: Creative Common

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