Women in Leadership

This is a excellent article by HR Daily for employers and HR professionals looking to improve gender diversity at the executive level. The suggestions in the article are based on research by Kerry Baxter who conducted a study focusing on women in leadership roles (the final paragraph on approaches that do work is particularly valuable). It’s also worth noting  that all the women involved in the study were working parents.


The careers of successful senior executive women have four key characteristics in common, and they’re areas that HR departments can influence to make the path easier for others, according to researcher and leadership coach Kerry Baxter.

Baxter, who completed her PhD on women in leadership roles, found that while there are no definitive secrets to success for women, patterns and themes emerge from their experience because “people who are successful always leave a trail”.

The 12 women she studied in detail faced all of the usual obstacles – gender-based stereotypes, glass ceilings, inhospitable corporate cultures and the like – but succeeded regardless, so HR professionals and women with executive aspirations can learn from their journey, she told a Robert Walters breakfast last week.

The barriers preventing more women from getting to the top of organisations can be broken down, she said. “You just need to know how.”

“The problem is not about education, roles and flexibility, but behaviour and what happens day to day.”

1. Belief in brand ‘you’

The first characteristic shared by the women in Baxter’s research was an “amazing sense of self-belief”, she said.

They each had a distinctive “brand” that reflected their true self; their behaviour consistently reflected their values, beliefs and feelings; and they were confident in who they were.

Also, Baxter said, “they didn’t go to work and turn into a leader”.

“Leadership was who they were; they led in everything they did.”

HR professionals can foster this characteristic in women by providing opportunities to develop their self-awareness, Baxter said, and encouraging them to “be authentic”.

Women should also be aware that the best way to discover one’s personal brand is when “backed into a corner”. Challenging situations requiring tough decision-making reveal who a person truly is and what drives them, she said.

2. Follow your passion

While men seem to have an ability to “cut through and do what makes them happy”, women tend to be much more conflicted by a sense of duty and competing priorities, Baxter said.

Her study found that successful women “didn’t go for work-life balance” – in fact, they were often out of balance, but they would “do one thing 100 per cent, then the next”.

They did, however, prioritise their work extremely well, and they chased opportunities in line with their passions, often meaning they had a non-traditional career path.

Women have to create their own freedom to follow their passions, and refuse to be pigeonholed, she said.

“You can’t sit in a role waiting for someone to pluck you out because you’re working hard. Nobody is going to fight for you as much as you can.”

HR can play an integral part in organisations doing this, Baxter said.

“What [they can do] is give people little small chunks or jumps – little leaps, little projects, little things – to do, and as you get those you get more experience and you get more confidence and you can actually make bigger leaps.”

3. Be ready to make ‘sideways leaps’

The women Baxter studied had non-linear career paths, often moving sideways – across industries or companies – which helped them progress faster than they would have by staying in a traditional path.

“These women didn’t go up a corporate ladder. They all moved sideways, in and out of industries and professions. Their careers appeared almost serendipitous.”

The women talked a lot about luck, she said, “but really, they knew where they wanted to go. When opportunities came, they wanted to take them. They took ownership of their individual success.”

Rather than mapping out their careers “paling by paling”, they mapped milestones, and leaped between them, Baxter said. “They put their hands up lots, and they took jobs no-one wanted.”

A key area for organisations working with women in their middle ranks is to help with the visibility of projects, and the confidence women need to put their hands up for these opportunities, she said.

“Focus on and know their strengths. Build on them.”

4. Stay connected

Every woman in the study had strong relationships and supportive connections; “they were connected at work, socially, and with their families”.

Each had a partner who contributed to what they loved doing, and they all “somehow managed the tension between dual careers”, Baxter said. They all had children, but their relationships meant they could drop in and out of careers; partners swapped roles to become primary caregivers and do “what was best for her career at that time”.

At work, the women each had a good relationship with their CEO or immediate boss, and that kept them in the organisation. “If it soured, they were quick to move on.”

The lesson on this point for HR departments is to focus on the supervisors and leaders of women to ensure they are supportive and “speaking the same language”, Baxter said.

“There’s no point sending [women] to a great leadership development course and then plonking them right back, smack-bang under a manager who says ‘You can’t do that. What do you mean you want to start at 9.30?'”

The women were also very good networkers, but “they were good because they loved what they were doing”, Baxter said.

Networking wasn’t a daunting activity because it was “like a conversation with a friend: ‘What are you doing? Here’s what I’m doing!'” and the women strategically made time for it.

Research often suggests executive women “aren’t good with other women”, but these women were, she added. “They were generous with their time. They didn’t ‘pull the ladder up after them’, and they had excitement [about supporting other women].”

A key message for HR is to facilitate networking opportunities and transfer of knowledge within and outside of the organisation, she said.

Involving women who have left and returned (following caring responsibilities, for example), can be useful because it assists with this, and HR shouldn’t underestimate the value of additional skills that women gain during their time out of paid work.

As the women in her study all had coaches, and mentors (although generally not through formal programs), HR should also look at ways to foster these relationships and arrangements, she said.

Implementing all of these things can be incredibly valuable in attracting and retaining women, because “development is one of the key things for people’s engagement”.

“That is a powerful story for HR to sell.”

What does and doesn’t work?

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, Diversity Council Australia is urging employers to look carefully at their women’s leadership initiatives, noting evidence suggests many traditional approaches are ineffective.

After reviewing the latest research on leadership, DCA says the following ideas “don’t work:

  • The ‘pipeline theory’ that says gender balance will be achieved over time now that there are more women entering the workforce and moving into more senior roles;
  • Formal talent management programs that ignore gender (they are linked to lower representation of women than programs which acknowledge gender);
  • A focus on promoting ‘meritocracy’ (this results in gender biased decision-making and favours men); and
  • Asking women to ‘lean in’ more (they are already ambitious and leaning in, and men benefit more from leaning in than women).

The approaches that do work, on the other hand, include:

  • ‘Gender conscious’ initiatives such as targeted recruitment programs and women’s leadership development;
  • Fixing the culture by moving away from the ‘deficit model’ that says women are the problem;
  • Sponsorship (which is associated with women’s advancement) rather than mentoring (which develops women but doesn’t lead to their advancement);
  • Addressing bias of all kinds (conscious, unconscious, individual, organisational);
  • Targets and public accountability as well as a dedicated diversity function; and
  • Adopting a broader, more gender-inclusive (and effective) definition of leadership capability.

Parents@Work, 10 March 2014

Source: HR Daily, 3 March 2014