Enabling women to generate success at senior leadership levels

It is well established that organisations are losing a large percentage of their leadership talent because they are not providing the context for most women to pursue a leadership career. So, what can they do about it? In order to promote women, business leaders need to apply a variety of tactics simultaneously.

From our work and research here are key strategic issues that require being addressed in organisations so they can achieve a more gender balanced and better senior leadership compliment. Better because it has been demonstrated that women in senior leadership roles bring a richer combination of skills which enables them to be more effective than men.

A checklist for you to use
Here are the strategic issues to be addressed. Strategic in that they will make a wide impact and at the same time practical as they will make a difference in how things operate. This checklist is a good way for you to assess how your organisation is doing.

• Address unconscious bias in performance assessment and review
• Increase gender balance
• Make the way we work and the HR practices family friendly
• Enable women to make the first step into management
• Create a supportive context for women to express ambition based on mastery and appropriate recognition
• Help women to develop their envisioning competence

Unconscious bias is prevalent for all of us. In the assessment of performance and potential it tends to have a significant negative impact for women more so than men. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio found based on content analysis of individual performance reviews that “women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).”¹ She goes on to say “that these biases can lead to double standards, in that a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender.” Usually not positive in the case of a woman. Her recommendation for rectifying the situation and removing subjective biases creeping in are:
• using more objective criteria,
• involving a broader group of reviewers,
• and adjusting the frequency of reviews.

Companies should strive to have evaluations based on objective criteria and objective results. Factors such as subjective interpretation and measures of activities (spending long hours at work) should not be a persuasive element in assessing performance. Cecchi-Dimeglio goes on to say “the use of tailor-made, automated, real-time communication tools with instant feedback on employees’ weekly performance from supervisors, colleagues, and clients can have dramatic results for women.” In addition, male and female leaders must be educated in unconscious biases, what they are, what they mean and what are their consequences on work. Clarifying and training on unconscious biases, all biases including race, gender, etc., will help to raise awareness making them less unconscious.

Another factor we have seen is that women have to prove they are capable of doing the job before they get promotion while men get promoted on the basis of demonstrating potential, which can usually mean quite different things to different people.

Most organisations already have challenges with managers adopting a coaching approach and seeing the value of providing regular and objective feedback to their direct reports based on facts. They need to add to this the importance of managers recognizing and becoming aware of their unconscious biases and especially gender biases.

Increase gender balance. “Top management tends to divide its small population of women managers among many projects in the interests of introducing diversity to them all. But several studies have found that, so outnumbered, the women tend to be ignored by the men.”² Eagly and Carli. This is another fact that resonates with many of the women in senior leadership that Ludmila Kostandova has coached. For organisations to move towards gender balance it requires more than a token woman on the senior leadership team. It requires getting to a near parity situation.

The one caveat thrown up by research is that an important factor is that gender diversity is normatively accepted. Professor Zhang discovered “In a study of 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries, we found that gender diversity relates to more productive companies, as measured by market value and revenue, only in contexts where gender diversity is viewed as “normatively” accepted. By normative acceptance, we mean a widespread cultural belief that gender diversity is important.”³ “In other words, beliefs about gender diversity create a self-fulfilling cycle. Countries and industries that view gender diversity as important capture benefits from it. Those that don’t, don’t.” Professor Zhang and his cowriters go on to list three important benefits of gender diversity in senior management:
• A diverse workforce signals an attractive work environment for talent.
• When you value diversity, you encourage diverse idea exchange.
• A diverse workforce signals competent management for investors.

Make the way we work and the HR practices family friendly. Eagly and Carli list “flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, elder care provisions, adoption benefits, dependent child care options, and employee-sponsored on-site child care” as valuable in enabling women to maintain their career in the most demanding years of child rearing. They go on to say “A study of 72 large U.S. firms showed (controlling for other variables) that family-friendly HR practices in place in 1994 increased the proportion of women in senior management over the subsequent five years.” In addition, allowing women to leave the workforce while keeping the option of returning open to them will allow even greater flexibility and attractiveness for the organization.

Enable women to make the first step into management. “The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.” McKinsey 2019⁴. Enabling more women to make this first step into management will make a big difference for the diversity of talent available in the orgnisation leadership talent pool.

Create a supportive context for women to express ambition based on mastery and appropriate recognition. It is not that women are not ambitious.  “Women must worry about how ambition “looks” because appearing ambitious negatively impacts their success.  Men do not face this challenge.” says Kathy Caprino. “Success and likability are positively correlated in men, and negatively correlated in women.” Companies need to enable women to escape this prevailing perception. Kathy goes on to list a number of actions that can help to do this including:
• “Women stop having to pay a price of success in terms of being less accepted, liked, and supported, and having to sacrifice their family and personal lives.

• Employers start listening to the facts about the current obstacles impeding women’s success, and take powerful, positive action to revise their work cultures.”

Help women to develop their envisioning competence. Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru found in researching thousands of 360-degree assessments collected by Insead’s executive education program that, although scoring higher than men in all other leadership dimensions, “Women scored lower on “envisioning”—the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.” They go on to say “One of the biggest developmental hurdles that aspiring leaders, male and female alike, must clear is learning to sell their ideas—their vision of the future—to numerous stakeholders.” They concluded “It’s often observed that the very talents that bring managers success in midlevel roles can be obstacles to their taking on bigger leadership roles … Having had the message drummed into their heads that they must be rational, nonemotional, and hyperefficient, they might actually place a higher value than men on knowing the details cold and getting the job done. That, in turn, makes their leadership transition more difficult, because they stick with what they know longer.” Talent directors and managers need to take this on board and ensure that they are providing the right solutions to their high potential female leaders so they can make the transition.

In conclusion, we would like to stress that fostering gender balance and equal opportunities for women at work will require a systemic effort of all stakeholders inside the organisations, disregarding their gender. If you are serious about building an attractive and inclusive workplace, make sure you create an ongoing conversation at all levels of the organisations that will educate and enlighten the decision-makers on how to tap into the unexploited potential of leadership talents.

1. “How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It” by Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio. HBR April 2017.
2. “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership” by Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli. HBR September 2007.
3. “Research: When Gender Diversity Makes Firms More Productive” by Stephen Turban, Dan Wu and Letian (LT) Zhang. HBR February 2019.
4. “Women in the Workplace 2019” By Jess Huang, Alexis Krivkovich, Irina Starikova, Lareina Yee, and Delia Zanoschi. McKinsey October 2019.
5. “Busting the Myth That Women Aren't As Ambitious as Men” by Kathy Caprino. Forbes November 2011.
6. “Women and the Vision Thing” by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru. HBR January 2009.


Women in Leadership
Women Leaders

About the Author

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley is a Managing Partner of Performance Plus International (PPI) and a founding member of the PPI Network. He has a depth of experience in management development and training built up over many years, initially in Ireland, then in Africa and for the last 25 years in Europe based in Belgium.