So, you’ve decided you want to increase the proportion of women in your leadership team – now what? How do you go from an ambition to implementing a plan that makes a material difference?
This is moving steadily up the agenda for many employers and it’s not going to go away. I think it’s fair to say the business case is now well known and accepted – having more women in senior management is better for your bottom line. It’s also increasingly important to demonstrate you’re taking this seriously as part of your strategy to attract key talent (both male and female). And in the UK, there’s the added pressure of the gender pay reporting for any employer with a headcount of more than 250. Part of the requirement is that employers provide a written supporting statement. The recommendation is this includes a narrative explaining why the organisation thinks a gap is present and what they intend to do to close it.
Whatever the driver, launching a Women in Leadership Initiative is no longer just the right thing to do, it presents a huge opportunity to become a leader in your field.
So where do you start?
1. Be clear on your vision
Easy right? You want more senior women. What does that mean? What level in your organisation? And are you going for 50:50? By when? Getting aligned on your key objectives at the outset is critical not only for the team delivering this but also to ensure the message lands successfully with your employees.
2. Gather data
Once you have your vision you need two key sets of data:
a) Where you are today – to understand what it would take to make your vision a reality (i.e. how many women need to be recruited or promoted to reach your goal) you need to know where you are today. How many senior women do you have? How does this vary by level and department? What’s your attrition rate and therefore how would this play out?
b) Why this is the case – you also need to understand why you don’t have as many women in senior roles as you want. Is it flexibility? Culture? A lack of sponsorship? You may well have a good sense of this already but I always recommend asking the business. This will give you evidence on which to build your plan. It’s also likely to not only confirm your gut instincts but also throw up a few issues you either hadn’t thought about or hadn’t realised were as big a deal as they are. Best of all, it’s a great way to begin engaging your employees.
How do you get this data?
Working out where you are today should be a relatively straightforward numbers exercise. To find out why you are where you are I recommend a combination of anonymous surveys of your team (potentially leadership only depending on the size of your business) and 121 interviews with a subset of your leaders (current and potential). This will give you both quantitative data (e.g. x% of you told us lack of sponsorship was a key challenge) and qualitative data (such as “I look at the work-life balance of senior leaders and I’m not sure I want that”). Ideally, get someone external to do this – your team are much more likely to open up and so ultimately help you learn what’s really going on if they’re talking to a trusted outsider.
3. Secure senior level buy in
If you’re not the CEO / MD or don’t have their support, now is the time to get it. Ideally, they’ll chair the initiative but if not a member of your Exec team who can make sure they are fully engaged. This senior level engagement is crucial – you need both the leaders in your organisation and the employees on board to make this happen and this is where they’ll take their lead from.
4. Build a bespoke plan
Armed with your evidence you’ll have a much clearer picture of where you need to focus to make a difference for your business. There are typically three areas to consider:
Recruitment – is your challenge in attracting female recruitment? Is that in particular areas or levels? Would you benefit from reviewing your job descriptions or short-listing procedures? Would your hiring managers benefit from unconscious bias training?
Retention – is there an opportunity to increase retention? Could you offer more support to parents or review your approach to flexibility / hybrid working?
Progression – could you do more to ensure your aspiring female talent is ready for the next move? Do they need bespoke training? Would a senior sponsor help?
5. Establish governance
This can be one of the harder aspects to nail. Once you have an idea of what you want to do you need to figure out the best way to run it. Do you want this to be an HR led initiative or do you want the business taking the lead? Which will land best in your organisation? Is there a need for permanent heads or can you run it with a Working Group with day jobs? Often it will evolve from one form to another but whichever you choose the most important thing is to treat it like you would any other business project and make sure roles and responsibilities are clear.
6. Test and learn
With your initiative starting to take shape and the buzz growing around the business it can be tempting to jump straight to a company wide rollout. But much of what is in your plan will be new. So back to the point of treating this like any other business project – it can be far better to run focus groups to test out new processes and pilot sponsorship or development programmes on a small scale initially. Test and learn before a full roll out. This will not only ensure your final programme is more likely to land well it will also demonstrate to employees you are serious about this. You’ll create excitement and a desire to be part of it…which as with any major business change is most of the battle.
Catherine Oliver is a Diversity and Inclusion Advisor, with a particular focus on helping businesses, from start-ups through to FTSEs, achieve gender balance and support working parents. She’s also a regular speaker at industry events. Catherine has worked in corporates for c. 20 years, most recently at Sky. While she was there, she had her daughter and subsequently founded Sky’s parenting network, Parents@Sky, and co-founded their award-winning Women in Leadership initiative alongside her “day job” in the Strategy team. Off the back of these initiatives Sky won the 2016 Working Mum’s Overall Top Employer Award and has made The Times Top 50 Employers for Women list every year since. https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherineoliver/