The Persistent Underrepresentation of Women in Management: Implications for Change

My previous post explored the persistent underrepresentation of women in management, described the situation, and presented some reasons for it. This week’s  post focuses on the assumption that this gender inequality can be changed, and discusses some organizational ‘TO DOs’ to advance gender diversity.

Every major change should start from an awareness and understanding of the current situation. Therefore, the first TO DO for organizations is to understand the starting point in the process of promoting gender diversity in management teams. According to McKinsey research, this understanding includes knowing different statistics, such as gender balance in different levels, functions, regions, and business units of the organization; comparing pay levels between men and women; monitoring attrition rates, and reasons of women dropping out; and calculating the ratio between high-potential women and women actually being promoted. Such detailed diagnostics enable companies  to set specific and reachable targets, as well as evaluate progress on the way to reaching them. Finally, these diagnostics may be a wake-up call for some organizations and serve as a volitional force for initiating change.

However, even the best intentions may still fall short of  corresponding actions. As the psychology of behavioral change implies, and as I have discussed in a recent book chapter (Kohnke, Reiche, & Balla, 2012), translating intentions into real actions requires solid reasoning and motivation to change. Leaders cannot change their organizations towards promoting gender diversity unless they can change the way they and their organizations think. For example, many challenges associated with women’s progress through corporate ladders are linked to prevailing gender role stereotypes and attitudes. As the McKinsey article states, ‘some male executives, with good intent, do not even ask mothers to consider line assignments that involve travel and long hours’. Therefore, the second TO DO for becoming a gender diversity champion is to shift mind-sets and promote the benefits of a diverse work environment. The top companies in terms of gender diversity value and promote inclusiveness, and increase awareness of gender biases and attitudes in the organization. The McKinsey research raises biases such as reluctance of men to give women tough developmental feedback, seeing their role of supporting or mentoring women  as inappropriate, and being more comfortable with people that are similar to them, inherently benefiting men in the still male-dominated  management team environment. As mentioned earlier, being aware of such biases and questioning the attitudes is a first positive step towards making a difference. The research data supports practical implications for top executives to question their own personnel choices, thinking about whom they tend to work with and why. Also, open communication and an integration of the change initiative into the core company values is useful to reinforce mind-set changes in the whole organization.

When awareness is increased, the starting point established, and mind-sets adjusted, it is time to transfer intentions into actions. Commitment is probably the main force of progress here. Every change at the organizational level – including implementation of gender diversity – requires role modeling from senior leaders, hence the CEO should become the chief advocate of this change. Accordingly, the third TO DO on the list of organizations committed to getting more women represented in management boards is to get senior management’s personal involvement in championing gender diversity. The McKinsey research showed that compared to less committed CEOs, who prioritize other issues over gender diversity, the committed CEOs make their diversity goals clear and specific, get other leaders involved, and, for example, participate in women’s events and related talent management processes. Moreover, it is important that the turning point from planning into actually doing takes place when senior leadership commitment becomes visible. Specifically, many executives reported appointing women to senior positions and ensuring their equal consideration for certain jobs. Another facet of such commitment comes from deliberate sponsorship programs, which can help women executives to reach the top. Setting a positive example, one participating company in the McKinsey study reported an initiative of selecting a group of high-potential women and inviting them to spend significant amount of time with the senior management team. This program facilitated promotions through the management ladder, as these women executives got well acquainted with the management team and vice versa. Therefore, the research highlights the importance of establishing a culture of sponsorship, namely encouraging each senior manager to sponsor a few future leaders, including women, who will in turn sponsor two to three other high-potential talents.

As the current political debate about female representation in management boards of European companies shows, quotas may be insufficient to achieve far-reaching gender diversity that is not only enacted but also believed. To that end, there are several ways for global organizations to improve gender diversity and reap the benefits that it entails. Now is the time to work off the TO DO list.

Further reading:

Kohnke, O., Reiche, B.S., & Balla, E. (2012). Organizational change management. In A. Uhl & L.A. Gollenia (Eds.), A Handbook of Business Transformation Management Methodology, pp. 169-198. Surrey: Gower.

One thought on “The Persistent Underrepresentation of Women in Management: Implications for Change

  1. Transfer intentions into actions – vital. It all starts from the top. The business is driven by the CEO, and therefore any cultural change should be to. As you mention if the CEO advocates greater representation of women in management, then this can really help.

    Championing gender diversity, needs to start at the very top.

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