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Tara Fennessy

Leadership Skills Training Ltd

Managing Director

Read more from Tara Fennessy

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Developing female leaders: where are we going wrong?


Women represent half the talent pool, so why the struggle to develop them?

Two of the biggest concerns/issues for organisations and CEOs are the lack of leadership talent available and transitioning more women into senior roles to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Despite this, there is still a significant gap of women moving into the leadership pipeline (women make up less than a quarter - 24% - of senior roles globally).

A recent McKinsey report highlighted a solid case for female leaders: women make 70% of purchasing decisions, while 50% of the talent pool is already commercially available.

It’s widely recognised that women achieve better results, including higher profitability, more innovation, better governance and better RoE (return on equity).

While all this is true, it seems women continue to be left behind - there's a distinct lack of gender diversity in the boardroom. The McKinsey report noted that, ‘even though men and women are equally ambitious, it remains difficult for women to realise their ambitions’.

What's stopping women from moving into leadership ranks at a higher rate?

A further survey, conducted by JUMP and Leverage HR surveyed over 1000 career women across their community and found the following as key obstacles holding women back from the next level:

  • A belief that their employer isn’t equipped to develop women into leaders.
  • Self-limiting beliefs and behaviour.
  • Women did not feel sufficiently prepared and knowledgeable enough to take on the next steps.

Demand and passion to change

It is often said that women don’t want these roles, but the contrary is true. Women are in fact as ambitious and passionate as men are, when it comes to moving into leadership roles.

The difference seems to lie in each gender’s understanding of the tasks involved, and skills in order to successfully excel in the new role.

In the JUMP/Leverage HR survey, 87% said that they were aware that the new role would expose them to a vast array of new challenges, with 78% of women stating that they could accommodate these changes across both personal and professional environments.

Driving women to accomplish more

Women represent the most powerful, yet untapped talent resource we have.

When transitioning into a new role, change is a given. Where there is change, there is an increased chance of both opportunities and mistakes. Indeed, 99% of successes derive from failures and it is counterproductive to view mistakes as a negative thing.

Embracing change is admirable, and despite the challenges there is still a strong affinity for change.

This is something women aren’t afraid of, according to the survey - 78% responded that they thrive on change.

The onus is undoubtedly on organisations to combat this deeply ingrained bias and create a more diverse environment.

Despite this, 52% find it challenging to learn from their mistakes, 46% find it difficult to bounce back quickly when they receive negative feedback, and 57% find it challenging to appear confident unless they are 100% prepared.

Women undoubtedly have to prove more than their male counterparts when it comes to being considered for promotion.

The JUMP survey exposed a truth that many women have been telling for a while now: women who make mistakes in traditionally male occupations (and leadership often still is) are judged much more harshly than their male counterparts.

At the same time, women’s mistakes tend to be given more weight and remembered longer than men’s.

Business success is correlated with risk-taking. Therefore, it is important for women to fight the tendency to focus all of the attention on the risk associated with a new role, initiative, venture or investment.  

At the same time, it is important for organisations to focus on creating an environment where leaders encourage employees to take risks and learn from mistakes. With mistakes come key learnings, more experience, and growth.

How can we shift bias?

The onus is undoubtedly on organisations to combat this deeply ingrained bias and create a more diverse environment that will provide suitable and open opportunities for women to progress.

There are four key actions organisations can take to overcome the issue:

  1. Build a more open culture
    Creating a safe environment for employees – regardless of gender - to make mistakes and learn from them drives confidence and encourages new thinking.
  2. Manage expectations and roles
    Set standards and a clear CPD programme to push those who want to progress. Ensure that the skills are celebrated and maximised.
  3. Drive activity and push women out of comfort zones
    The research shows that women are resistant risk-takers, so by offering and encouraging women to take on assignments that stretch them, you can help build new skills across the company, as well as allowing for future progression.
  4. Provide mentoring and equal support across the business
    Role models and sounding boards are an essential part of women’s progression. By mixing both male and female mentors available across the organisation, you are not only developing one individual – it also increases innovation and creativity across the company.

To break through these barriers a two-fold approach is needed. In the first instance, cultural and organisational issues must be addressed. Organisations should provide all employees with the same level of leadership training and the potential opportunities to grow, regardless of their gender.

The biggest change will happen when women are able to fully realise their vision and are able to develop their talent and skills on a level playing field, with confidence in their proven ability to fulfill their job specifications.

Enabling women to take control

The main challenge for women is self-reservation. While women may be outstanding at their jobs, they articulate this differently to their male counterparts, opting to illustrate balanced skills instead of boasting about their wins and successes.

The research has made it evident that women feel the need for more education and qualifications to be considered for promotion.

Organisations need to recognise this and invest in their female potential leadership teams.

The best way to do this is through a personalised CPD plan to identify which skills and attributes are needed to advance their confidence and progression.

There needs to be a balance between organisations taking responsibility for overcoming bias, and women working to widen their stakeholder management skills so that they can effectively communicate their skills and connect with relevant stakeholders confidently.  

Interested in this topic? Read An illusion of progress: women in senior roles.

Author Profile Picture
Tara Fennessy

Managing Director

Read more from Tara Fennessy

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