Why are women still such a small percentage of senior leadership positions in companies across America? That’s the question I couldn’t get out of my head. It led me down the path of research and exploration. Eventually it led me to start a non-profit organization that uses a grassroots employee approach to drive institutional change.
ShowMe50.org uses seven toolkits and the ShowMe50 Win-Win checklist to inform, inspire and influence action. We must find the courage to speak up. If we don’t ask our companies to change talent management practices to level the playing field, we will never be able to deliver on the promise of true equal opportunity for women.
While there has been progress in the pursuit of women’s equal access to opportunity in the workplace, women continue to face a playing field that they believe is anything but level. Research from leading organizations has been telling us what needs to change. In their 2009 report, “Cascading Gender Biases, Compounding Effects: An Assessment of Talent Management Systems,” Catalyst described how talent management processes “are linked in ways that disadvantage women creating a vicious cycle in which men continually dominate executive positions.” Their research found that companies fall short in implementing the kinds of checks and balances that minimize gender bias.
There are four techniques that have been shown to level the playing field for all qualified people.
1. Skill-based gender bias training. Companies must train all management employees, especially senior leaders, with quality skill-based gender bias training that includes teaching and enforcing bias interrupters. We must teach managers how to prevent our unconscious biases from causing errors in judgment so we can institutionalize a culture where we identify and choose the best person for a job. You can read more about bias in a business-focused report from EY and RBC here.
2. Transparent and objective talent management systems. To disrupt systemic bias, we must:
- Clearly define and communicate performance evaluation and candidate job selection criteria
- Create explicit decision rules about how evaluation criteria are weighted and applied for performance evaluations and candidate job selections
- Post and effectively communicate all jobs internally
- Implement diverse slate policies
- Utilize panels of diverse, bias-trained interviewers for candidate selection
- Publish career development programs and their qualifications
3. Gender neutral approach to workplace flexibility.
Today’s employees – men and women - need flexibility for balancing increasing demands outside of work. Companies can improve business agility by adapting the workplace to the new reality.
- Establish work practices that create business agility including flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting
- Use employee needs, interests and concerns about burnout as a catalyst for creatively designing work
- Establish alumni programs for women who need to step away from the workforce; tap their expertise to show that returning is possible
4. Executive commitment and accountability.
To improve business results, key performance indicators are measured and compensation is tied to performance. Unconscious gender bias needs this same kind of scrutiny. A level playing field where qualified women have equal opportunity to rise to the leadership ranks requires the CEO to be visible and vocal about it. Bain & Co. published a study, “Walk the talk
aimed to understand specifically what CEOs and other leaders can do to create positive and engaging environments for both genders. The study highlights critical behaviors and “conduct that counts.”
With a tight labor market and a war for talent, it has never been more important for companies to tap into the talents of all their employees. Gender parity is a business issue not a woman’s issue. To help companies accelerate progress toward a level playing field, we can educate ourselves, form coalitions of like-minded advocates, and start influencing change to policies and practices.
Elba works on a cross-functional team developing e-commerce strategy at UPS. She is also the founder of ShowMe50.org, a collaborative grassroots platform that engages men and women to achieve 50% women in senior leadership positions in corporate America. You can follow ShowMe50 on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. All statements made reflect her personal opinion.