The Power of Exclusion: What it Takes to Get Her Ahead

New studies continue to reveal the startling lack of female presence in company leadership. Before real progress can be achieved, serious changes must be made to corporate culture.

Gender inequality has never been a more pressing issue for British business. With topics such as the gender pay gap, and a lack of female leaders, dominating headlines, it is becoming ever-more apparent that women are being seriously under-represented at board level, and within leadership as a whole. Rebecca Hourston, Managing Director at Talking Talent, analyses the problem.

Despite praise for a recent government-backed review, finding that women now hold a third of board roles in the UK’s FTSE 100 firms, there is still a long way to go to ensure an equal gender balance in the leadership of British businesses – most of whom are still lagging behind. Women still continue to face barriers to success, whether that’s through promotion to key roles or how they are treated by colleagues. That’s despite female talent having a well-documented positive impact on profitability, innovation and engagement.

There are simply not enough female leaders, and exacerbating this problem is the hypocrisy of businesses, saying one thing – agreeing there is a problem and pledging change – only to then not act. This conversation has been taking place for far too long. And by opting for the safe choice of generic talent development, organisations are not getting to the heart of what women in the workplace need, nor developing an understanding of why dedicated female development results in developing more inclusive cultures.

The Root of the Problem

Female talent development has been hampered by incorrect perceptions of female-centric coaching, and worries that investing in women might mean excluding men and promoting positive discrimination. In essence, the kickback to promoting women is predominantly fuelled by a fear of upsetting men.

However, it’s important to remember that bringing women to the forefront doesn’t mean leaving men behind. It’s about facilitating coaching that is tailored for women – and recognising that women often have a very different experience of their careers by comparison to their male colleagues. Prioritising women might be seen as positive discrimination, but it’s not about taking men out of the picture; it’s about putting emphasis on women to get them into the picture in the first place. It’s about nurturing a talent pipeline – everyone in that pipeline – and getting the best from every person in an organisation.

After all, men and women are fundamentally different, and putting everyone in the same box in the name of inclusivity means that coaching is not as tailored or effective. Put simply, one box fits none. Instead of being frightened of the difference between the sexes, businesses should embrace it and use it for a clear business advantage. Different strengths and weaknesses make a stronger team.

In essence, the kickback to promoting women is predominantly fuelled by a fear of upsetting men.

Making Steps to Real Change

Whilst the lack of female talent within leadership roles has largely been a HR and commercial concern over the last decade, in order to achieve sustainable change, it must be acknowledged as a true business focus. Companies must be bold enough to back their female talent and support them authentically, with clear and consistent action. As a result of adopting an inclusive and diverse workforce, businesses stand to gain a number of business benefits – from enhanced business performance to a positive bottom-line impact.

Studies have shown that innovation is six times higher in companies where men and women are treated equally, proving that equality makes a genuine difference when it comes to business performance.

Ultimately, the aim should be to make women-centric programmes unnecessary and obsolete. But for now, the data is clear that there is a long way to go.

The Importance of Investing – And Investing Now

For now, it’s still crucial for organisations to invest in women-centric leadership coaching – which is not simply a tick-box activity, but a real solution that means authentic transformation and culture change, investing in people and protecting talent pipelines as a result. When businesses put in place a plan of action to nurture, engage, enhance and invest in female talent, they will discover it’s not about a battle of the sexes. Temporarily segregating specialist areas within a company to capitalise on micro-coaching opportunities will help strengthen the whole.

This plan of action should address gender imbalances and contain clear and actionable objectives to measure success in areas such as promotions, retention and project assignments – overall driving a culture of change throughout the organisation.

Driving inclusion and diversity makes a tangible difference to the progressiveness of an organisation’s culture and employee engagement – and ultimately, it’s great for the bottom line. Companies in the top quartile for executive team gender diversity are reportedly 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than others. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue.

Forward-thinking companies must nurture, engage, enhance and invest in their female talent – and female-specific leadership programmes offer an opportunity for employers to show how they are willing to invest in women in their organisation. This creates belonging, loyalty and belief, as well as acting as a beacon for brilliance within the industry. It helps women to grow, improve and increase confidence whilst improving company profit, innovation and reputation. There’s no excuse not to champion women – and the businesses that do stand to realise serious benefits as a result.

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