16 Mar 2023
How women’s leadership can be championed by HR
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Human Resources can play a vital part in supporting women’s professional progression. With these five approaches, HR leaders can create fairer, more equitable organisations that perform better and have a greater pool of talent to recruit from.
Female leadership has made immense gains over the past 50 years, but there remains a significant underrepresentation of women in the executive suite and on boards of directors. Balancing work and family lives, being overlooked for promotions, working under male oriented management systems and in roles lacking the necessary flexibility means female leadership still faces difficulties in growing organically.
Overcoming these challenges therefore requires an active approach; one in which HR plays a significant role.
CHROs, HR directors and other people leaders are in a prime position to develop environments and cultures which break down barriers and enable ways for women to excel.
As a function, HR is critical to this effort. A recent Gartner study said HR must develop ‘consequential accountability’ to achieve a diverse leadership bench, i.e. HR must work with business leaders to make proactive changes if they want to drive diversity and support women leaders.
We explore some of these approaches, looking at the most effective ways HR can promote women’s leadership within organisations.
Mentoring and sponsorship
Both mentors and sponsors - closely linked with one another - are indispensable in supporting women at decisive career points. Mentors can help women broach discussions about salary and progression, challenge biases and expectations with confidence, improve self-promotion and capitalise on strengths. Sponsors are arguably even more important as a woman’s career progresses; while a mentor offers advice, a sponsor is an advocate and a senior leader who looks out for you. This is a huge confidence boost for women who can feel underrepresented and are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome than their male counterparts.
While women can find mentors and sponsors on their own, organisations with dedicated programmes gain proven advantages in performance and talent.
A 2022 study on mentoring showed the vast majority of HR leaders found mentoring programmes led to both improved organisational performance and individual development.
Through succession planning, HR can identify the next generation of leaders, assess the organisation’s leadership skills gaps, and provide a means for underrepresented groups to overcome the glass ceiling.
Importantly, a structured succession plan can significantly decrease the risk of top talent leaving an organisation at critical career levels.
This is crucial in preventing mid to senior management ‘drop off’ which sees many women exit the workforce before they’re appointed to leadership.
In addition to the direct support they provide, women can incorporate these programmes into their personal and professional goals. They demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to women’s careers, create a sense of value around women’s leadership and changes the culture around how the organisation views women in decision-making positions.
Return to work and flexible roles
Typically, from the managerial level onwards, women are more likely to be overlooked for promotion and even leave the workforce altogether. While several factors are at play here, the most significant is the inflexibility offered in the workplace and the lack of return to work schemes.
In 2022, a study from LinkedIn found over half of women have left or are considering leaving roles due to a lack of flexibility.
More than one in five also said the lack of flexibility offered by their employer hindered their career progression. At the same time, the absence of widespread return to work schemes means highly talented women who take career breaks are faced with difficulties when trying to re-enter the workplace.
While Covid-19 saw the widespread adoption of flexible working, HR leaders need to tailor this practice for women.
This includes adapting roles so they can be done on a part-time or a job sharing basis, flexing positions around daily caring responsibilities and enabling career breaks.
Adapting the workplace itself is also a vital change. For example, at Odgers Berndtson we have introduced a menopause initiative and assist clients to develop their own policies, which helps to keep senior women leaders in roles, enhances public reputation and widens the talent pool.
Understanding women’s behaviours
Women are far less likely than men to self-promote, are far more likely to self-critique and more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. These behavioural traits do not correspond with management systems that are by and large still geared to confidence and visible self-assurance.
Adapting an organisation’s performance process is fundamental in building an environment which enables women to fairly progress up the career ladder.
For HR, this often means training managers in supportive encouragement, drawing out a person’s strengths and having non-judgemental discussions around imposter syndrome, as well as redefining appraisals to focus on output and tangible achievements.
Promote from within
For over-stretched HR teams, external recruitment can be the default approach for widening their pool of potential women leaders. While a critical part of ensuring gender diversity in leadership teams, it’s often solely relied upon, whereas HR should focus on both external recruitment and internal progression.
Tied closely to succession planning, promoting internally demonstrates to employees the organisation values women in leadership roles and builds a culture of inclusion and belonging.
This is crucial for retention. Organisations that don’t meaningfully and visibly support diverse career advancement are likely to see any new female leadership hires leave within the first month. Externally appointing and internally promoting women should therefore be used in tandem.
Developing mentoring and sponsoring programmes, succession planning, creating flexible roles and changing management dynamics will all drive internal promotion for women. We also know that what gets measured gets done and so making retention and promotion of women part of the performance criteria for managers and executives is essential in increasing the number of women leaders.
With these five approaches, HR leaders can create fairer, more equitable organisations that perform better and have a greater pool of talent to recruit from.
You can find out more about our HR and people leaders practice here, and more about our own initiatives supporting women leaders here.
You can also get in touch with us here, or find your local Odgers Berndtson contact here.
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