glass ceiling

How to Elevate Women in the Workplace

Research finds the glass ceiling persists because both employers and female employees miss opportunities for change.

Sometimes it’s easy to point fingers but a lot harder to come up with viable solutions. The lack of women in higher level executive positions is frequently remarked upon and decried, but the nation’s human resources leaders have laid out a program that offers solid advice about how companies can achieve this goal.

At the same time, based on their experience in observing people in their everyday work environments, they also are offering their observations about the beliefs and practices of female employees to help them prepare their way to advance in the corporate hierarchy, according to a research report produced by an affiliate of the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM).

Statistics show that although women hold almost 52% of all professional-level jobs, they only make up 44% of the overall labor force and 36% of first- or mid-level officials and managers at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies. Women also have risen to only 25% of executive- and senior-level leadership positions, hold only 20% of board seats, and are only 6% of chief executive officers.

“Over the years, organizations have invested countless time and funds to improve these bleak numbers,” says Tammy Heermann, senior vice president of the Leadership Transformation Practice at the consulting firm of Lee Hecht Harrison, for HR People + Strategy, the executive network affiliate of SHRM.

“CEOs make grand supportive declarations, and new diversity and inclusion roles sprout up. We have witnessed the ebb and flow of optimism and despair as organizations take one step forward and two steps back, or worse, hit the demoralizing plateau,” she adds.

The research gathered input from 230 senior human resource executives and leaders in more than 20 different industries who are responsible for helping their organizations build stronger leadership pipelines. They freely made known their assessments of what it takes for individuals and organizations to pick up the pace of progress.

“We have taken a comprehensive look at the three dimensions required to make meaningful change: individual behaviors, leadership culture and organizational practices,” notes Heermann. “We have seen progress halt and, in some cases, move backwards. What will it take to really break through? What will it take to cause a true tipping point in organizations that are frustrated with battles yielding, at best, a few percentage points increase year over year?”

How Employees Succeed

Heermann says the findings are clear: Current investments in female diversity initiatives are not working. “Investment in networking groups for women and practices that may or may not get used are not enough. In fact, the people leaders in organizations make the biggest difference.”

The HR executives talked about what they believe are the distinguishing behaviors and beliefs that emerge above all others in organizations where the researchers found women were extremely satisfied versus not at all satisfied. They are:

A clear, shared career plan. Compared to men, women tend to have less clear career goals that are shared with others, which then results in receiving less sponsorship for growth and development. Women do take more breaks in their careers than men due to child rearing and family responsibilities. “However, women who are successful in advancing upward plan their careers with a longer time horizon in mind, continuously share their plans, and get the support they need along the way to continue to progress,” Heermann observes.

Self-advocacy. “Results do not speak for themselves, and opportunities do not just fall in our laps,” she notes. “Self-advocacy is a critical behavior to learn; unfortunately, most women struggle with it.” Successful women know how to own their strengths and accomplishments, share how they add value to the organization, and ask for opportunities to grow and advance.

Influence upward. Research has shown that women are quite skilled at influencing, especially down and across an organization. Women face a bigger challenge, however, influencing upward with more senior stakeholders. “Women who are successful in moving upward use exposure through projects, roles and purposeful networking to better understand important stakeholders and more successfully influence how things get done,” Heermann says.

Delegate work. She also explains that in order to move into new roles, advance into senior positions, or make time for projects and development that will help with growth, women have to leverage the skill of delegation. “Women in our study were more apt to delegate or distribute work to free up time for strategic initiatives. They did not get mired in the weeds; rather they knew how to leverage others to get work done.”

Belief that there are no barriers to advancement. There is no doubting that there are many deep-seated societal and organizational barriers to the advancement of women, Heermann states. “Well-ingrained stereotypes are present in both men and women, which impact advancement opportunities.”

However, women in the extremely satisfied companies differed markedly in their own mindset: They believed that there were no barriers for themselves. There may have been factors all around them that could have prevented their success, but they didn’t let that get in the way of their own beliefs about what they could personally accomplish.

Practices That Help

Organizations need to pull several levers at the individual, cultural and organizational levels to create meaningful change, Heermann asserts. This foundation is required help women to believe that leadership is a possible career path for them, and to encourage them to engage in deliberate ongoing planning.

“Leaders need to actively champion female talent and create opportunities for women to grow and advance,” she says. “Organizations must continue to support women in their development, offer meaningful formal practices and hold leaders accountable for creating an inclusive environment. When these initiatives are implemented effectively, movement will occur.”

These key organizational practices include maintaining “people practices” (hiring, promotion, succession) that are free of gender bias. Organizations also need to address historical and current pay equity issues and to provide flexible work arrangements (hours or location of work) to accommodate family responsibilities. Another key practice is developing the skills of existing leaders to learn how to better manage diverse talent.

“Our work and data confirm that organizations need to do a better job making gender diversity a clear priority and hold leaders accountable for creating inclusive environments,” Heerman says. “Organizations who invest in developing inclusive leaders and hold them accountable for creating diverse teams experience far greater results. Building a genuine culture of inclusivity will mean weeding out those who do not support the desired culture.”

Gender parity can occur only when both women and men have more flexibility to manage family planning life stages, but the simple existence of policies and practices in this area is not enough on its own, she points out.

“Women and men experience backlash when attempting to use these policies in many of today’s organizational cultures. People leaders need to be flexible and supportive so that the practices can have their intended benefits.”

Organizations also need to provide female employees with development opportunities early on. This includes coaching them on how to self-advocate; create and share a career plan; influence upward; and delegate or expand beyond the daily press of work. “Catch women early in their careers, when they begin to feel doubt about what’s possible for them,” Heermann stresses.

She also reinforced the importance of training in this area for current executives and managers who supervise and work with these women. “Provide development for your people leaders so that they not only learn how to become great talent managers, but also how to help with the headwinds that females in particular face.”

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