Progressing Women in Leadership – what works?

Source: CEW and Bain & Co

In the past two days I have read two insightful pieces of research into how to create an organisation where women can progress.

Chief Executive Women commissioned a study with Bain & Co which  used the concept of net promoter score (advocates minus detractors to a specific question) to tease out what aspects of a company were most likely to lead employees to strongly agree that they are likely  to recommend their organisation as a place for women to progress to senior levels.  They surveyed 1,492 people in for profit and not for profit organisations around Australia, 55% of whom were female, and 58% of whom were in senior management, executive, or Board positions.

The net promoter score for women to that question (number of advocates, less than number of detractors) was -38, showing that Australian organisations are not well thought of as places for women to progress.

The questions that the team asked were all about CEO behaviour, and the top three markers for CEO behaviours which correlated with a strong recommendation for the company were:

  • The CEO has a track record of ensuring women are appointed into senior line roles.
  • The CEO holds other senior executives and managers accountable for gender parity outcomes.
  • The CEO has a track record of actively sponsoring women, assisting their career progression.

The correlation was both positive and negative – those particular questions provided the strongest correlation in both directions for companies that were recommended for women to progress, and those that weren’t.

The second piece of research was from Harvard Business Review, and based on a much bigger study of Harvard graduates. They surveyed 25,000 Harvard graduates (aged from 26-67) and asked them questions about their younger selves, when they graduated from Harvard, and themselves now, about defining success, their actual success (on that or other definitions) and their thoughts on responsibilities for children then and now.

The whole article is worth a read and the conclusions that jumped out to me were:

  • men and women (in this select group) defined success very similarly –

    Career-related factors figured prominently in their early definitions of success: Men and women mentioned job titles, job levels, and professional achievements at roughly the same rates.

  • despite the very common view that women’s relative lack of professional achievement is due to opting out, very few of these women opted out –

    It simply isn’t true that a large proportion of HBS alumnae have “opted out” to care for children. When we asked Gen X and Baby Boom women (who are most likely to have children under 18 living with them today) about their current status, we learned essentially what Mike Cook’s task force did: Only 11% are out of the workforce to care for children full-time…Seventy-four percent of Gen X alumnae are working full-time, as are 52% of Baby Boom alumnae (some of whom, like their male counterparts, have retired or are cutting back on their hours), and they average 52 hours a week.

  • And the biggest issue of all – men and women’s expectations of whose career would take priority, and how they would organise childcare (both on graduation, and then the reality) were sharply different.

    At the time they graduated from HBS, more than three-quarters of men expected that their partners would do the lion’s share of child care. Meanwhile, about half the women expected that they would take on the majority of this work. [But in reality..] Healthy majorities of Gen X and Baby Boom women took responsibility for most of the child care in their families. Even higher percentages of Gen X and Baby Boom men reported having spouses who did so. Women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations—and to see their expectations dashed.

So what does HBR conclude should be done?

At a certain point the belief that a woman’s primary career obstacle is herself became conventional wisdom, for both women and men. Yet framing the conversation like this doesn’t reflect reality—at least not for HBS women, and not, we’d venture, for many other highly educated, career-oriented women. It is now time, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has pointed out, for companies to lean in, in part by considering how they can institutionalize a level playing field for all employees, regardless of gender or caregiver status.

In the end, we found not just achievement and satisfaction gaps between men and women, but a real gap between what women expect as they look ahead to their careers and where they ultimately land. Perhaps it’s time for more-candid conversations—at home, at work, and on campus—about how and why their paths unfold so differently.

Interestingly, the AFR report on the CEW research quotes Jane Halton making a similar point.

Finance Department Secretary Jane Halton says a big issue is encouraging men in their parenting and domestic responsibilities. “I’m a strong proponent of the view that to maximise women’s participation in the workforce at all levels, we need to look at how we support men to take up the mantle at home, to the extent that women traditionally have,” she says.

This was exactly the point made by Annabel Crabb in The Wife Drought:

In focusing so hard on encouraging women to lean in, we’ve neglected to convince men of their entitlement to lean out once in a while.

So what do I conclude? First of all, that, as the CEW research points out most people judge organisations and CEOs by their actions, not their talk. So positive talk about gender diversity and family friendly workplaces doesn’t do much if it isn’t backed up by CEOs appointing women to their leadership teams and holding their leadership teams accountable to do the same.

And second, that a sustainable increase in the proportion of women in leadership roles in public society as a role will only happen with a sustainable increase in the proportion of men taking leadership roles in the home.

  1 comment for “Progressing Women in Leadership – what works?

  1. Andrew Wakeling
    December 7, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    “In the end, we found not just achievement and satisfaction gaps between men and women, but a real gap between what women expect as they look ahead to their careers and where they ultimately land. Perhaps it’s time for more-candid conversations—at home, at work, and on campus—about how and why”

    Yes, more ‘candid conversations’ would be good.. But how do we do that in the Australian workplace with sensitivities as to ‘discrimination’? We need to encourage managers to understand better and wherever possible support the differing expectations of their staff – men and women, ‘wives’ (in Annabel crabb terms) and ‘husbands’, mothers and fathers. Ideally jobs should be crafted around people; who is prepared to fly anywhere anytime, work week-ends etc., and who isn’t. Without ‘candid conversations’ we risk misunderstandings and resentments, particularly concerning any efforts to enable men to ‘lean out’ from time to time.

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