Are You Developing Female Leaders?

When mentoring young women, Skillsoft’s Priti Shah always makes it a point to urge them to advocate for themselves.

“It’s always a quid pro quo,” said Shah, Skillsoft’s vice president of leadership product strategy and corporate development. “The moment the company gives you the opportunity to advocate for yourself, take the bull by its horns — make sure you’re making the most of the development opportunities that are being given to you.”

Shah counts herself fortunate to have worked for companies supportive of her leadership development over her career, but she isn’t naive about the broader reality: a dearth of women in positions of leadership, especially at the senior and C-suite levels.

So she said she was surprised but not-so-surprised at the results of a November survey that revealed not only a lack of women in positions of leadership but also a lack of support to facilitate their mobility to such roles.

In “The Impact of Women in the Workforce: A Skillsoft Survey Report,” while more than 90 percent of female respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” there is an imbalance of women in leadership roles in business today, and just over half of respondents said their organizations having programs targeted to developing female leaders was important, only 24 percent of participants said their organization had a strategy or program in place to that end.

Shah said part of her lack of shock at the survey results was due to the fact that public awareness of the value of women in leadership is still in its infancy. Much of the research substantiating the impact of gender-diverse leadership has only started surfacing in the last 18 to 24 months, she explained. Only now are organizations receiving more pressure to take action.

Research shows that organizations with high levels of gender diversity are more likely to exceed financial performance averages in their respective industries, and further, that organizations with better financial performance or more likely to have women in leadership positions.

“There’s so much research out there that shows if you do have more gender-balanced representation in your executive staff, on your boards, it’s not only the right thing to do, it also has a direct impact on the financials of a company,” Shah said. “The moment you start bringing facts and figures in to amplify what the moral issue is here, there is a lot of awareness.”

Strategically turning this narrative around requires a number of tactics in addition to educating both men and women about the need for leadership development in women.

Build champions: Until boardrooms make a mix of gender representation a business objective, “we’re not going to see the dial move as much as we’d like to,” Shah said. Driving organizational support of the measures necessary to nurture female leaders from within should come from the top down.

“Less talk, more action”: Once stakeholders have been made aware of the issue, that is. Shah called formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship programs for women critical to change the status quo.

“In order to break the barriers of the ‘old boys’ club,’ it’s absolutely necessary for women to know it’s OK to network. It’s OK to have champions and sponsors and mentors who are advocating for them and proposing their name for the right projects, so that they get the opportunities to showcase their hard work, their potential.’

Shah said in instances where mentees worked at organizations without a strategic focus on developing female leaders, she’s encouraged them to actively seek out mentors within their respective organizations. If the advancement of women into leadership is valuable for a company’s culture and mission, such initiatives should be normalized and encouraged.

Further, initiatives should develop women at all levels. Shah said companies that haven’t experienced the type of success they would have liked may be narrowly focused on only a select group of women.

Leverage the power of big data: Research and data have revealed a problem — a disparity in gender representation in organizational leadership. Research and data also have revealed the associated consequence, and they point to an opportunity to change directions. Shah said data analytics now available and used for a range of purposes can inform and add value to corporate decision-making when creating programs and strategies to develop female leaders, and they can measure the effect of those efforts.

“They’re able to measure and track everything, and they can feel good about the fact that as they’re making these investments, they’re getting the return on investment,” she said.

This article first appeared in Talent Management’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer. Bravetta Hassell is a Diversity Executive associate editor.


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