Why Too Many Women's Leadership Initiatives Fail

January 7, 2021 6 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

From mentorship programs for high-potential women to women’s leadership development conferences that bring women from different teams and locations together to connect and grow, many companies have made it a priority to address the dearth of corporate women’s leadership.

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force and 2020 has set a record for women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but most U.S. companies are struggling when it comes to their women’s leadership development initiatives. Plus, many organizations that have been hurt by the current health and economic crisis have yet to use their initiatives to address how to support who are tasked with working from home while caring for children who are no longer in school or child-care. 

According to a 2020 brief by UN Women, while women “are at the helm of institutions carrying out effective and inclusive COVID-19 responses, from the highest levels of decision-making to frontline service delivery,” women are still underrepresented in too many decision-making forums.

For organizations to truly champion their women from recruitment to senior leadership, and every step in between, it’s critical to address the following blind spots to ensure that new or existing women’s leadership initiatives meet the real needs of women employees and set them up for long-term success. 

1. Begin with a Corporate Gender Responsibility plan

Corporate Gender Responsibility (CGR) is a company’s ability to create and sustain a culture and brand that protects and empowers female employees, board members, customers, and community members. One of the unintended consequences of the Me Too movement is that many organizations have prioritized the protection part of CGR over the empowerment one. As a result, organizations often have better sexual harassment prevention than they did several years ago, but they haven’t focused on how to cultivate more women leaders and prevent women during their childbearing years from leaking out of their leadership pipelines. By beginning with CGR, organizations look at women’s experiences and how to improve them from recruitment, hiring, and onboarding to management, ongoing development, and advancement. 

On the client-facing side, companies with a clear CGR plan also ensure that women play an active role in product design and innovation. Given that women make 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing decisions, including women’s voices in these processes is not only good CGR, it’s fiscally responsible to ensure that women customers’ needs are being represented and served.

2. Align women’s leadership initiatives with existing business goals

Too often, women’s leadership initiatives operate independently from a company’s vision, mission and business goals. As a result, the organizations create nice-to-have programs and experiences, but because they aren’t set-up to achieve their top priorities, they often are underfunded and eliminated whenever there are budget cuts.

When organizations are clear that their women’s leadership initiatives are helping them achieve their priorities, unsurprisingly, the initiatives are better supported throughout an organization.

Whether you have an existing women’s leadership or you are in the beginning stages of developing one, get clear on what the initiative needs to include to forward existing goals. For example, if one of your company’s goals is to increase diversity in management and leadership, design policies and programs that will increase women’s representation in management and senior leadership by a certain percentage within a specific period of time. That gives you a clear metric to work from.

Similarly, if one of your goals is to decrease the turnover of high-potential employees, design programming that addresses the real reasons women are leaving and provides the support they need if they choose to start families or need to care for sick family members — unpaid work that too often falls to women.

According to the 2020 McKinsey & Co. “Women in the Workplace” report, women first start to leak out of leadership pipelines in the transition from employee to manager, and the stress and burnout that women disproportionately face as a result of the pandemic could set women back half a decade.

3. Take a holistic, ongoing and practical approach

When designing the women’s leadership development component of your initiative, create programming that addresses the exact competencies and behaviors that are required to be a successful manager and  in your organization. Typically, women’s leadership development programs show women how to find their authentic communication and leadership style, navigate through discomfort and imposter syndrome, give and receive actionable feedback, set and reassert boundaries, negotiate on behalf of themselves and others, develop teams and champions, navigate through real and potential conflict, cultivate executive presence, polish their presentations skills, call people to take action, foster work-life integration and create sustainable self-care practices.

While event-based training and development are problematic across content areas, it’s particularly challenging for women’s leadership development because women’s leadership development is rarely about learning what to do. Rather, it’s about developing the mindset, skill set, support, and network to be able to lead one’s self and others — and that takes time and practice. Therefore, rather than having some individual training, ensure that training is ongoing and that managers support and follow-up on the training their direct reports have received.

Consider incorporating case studies and role-play into your women’s leadership development so that participants can try out the strategies they are learning and receive real-time feedback from program leaders. Also, give women ample opportunity to speak aloud the true challenges they are confronting professionally and personally, and to devise and try out solutions to them. The best women’s leadership programs center training around participants’ pain points and personal motivators and provide a safe space to problem-solve.

Due to the current health crisis, one in three mothers has contemplated abandoning their career, taking a leave of absence, or reducing their hours. Companies must begin or shore up their women’s leadership initiatives to ensure that recent gains in women’s organizational leadership are not lost.

The recommendations above will support you and your organization in creating a women’s leadership initiative that makes the impact your company and its women employees deserve.

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