Tactics to Advance Women in the Leadership Pipeline

June 6, 2019

Tactics to Advance Women in the Leadership Pipeline

Study after study has found that companies with gender diversity at the leadership level outperform their less inclusive peers. 

How can we capitalize on such findings? 

It starts with developing a leadership pipelineone filled with talented, ambitious women at every stage of the journey. But our latest analysis reveals that the pipeline slows to a trickle the further along the ranks we go.

Research by The Conference Board and Korn Ferry gauged nearly 300 HR leaders to better understand the pivotal points at which women move ahead or fall behind. While the percentage of women tends to decrease as they climb the corporate ladder, we found that the single largest drop-off occurs at the transition from individual contributor to manager. This vital choke point winnows young women from the leadership pipeline at just the time they should be poised to elevate their careers. 

To be sure, the HR leaders we surveyed see significant progress but also believe we have a long way to go before reaching gender parity. Without a doubt, numerous companies and their forward-thinking executives have already taken steps in the right direction, but these actions have yet to fully achieve the desired effect: women who are “ready” candidates all along the pipeline. Moreover, it doesn’t help that, despite the many progressive attempts that organizations make, women often opt out of leadership positions because of the perceived impact that taking on such a role will have on their personal lives or the lack of senior women in leadership roles whom they can emulate. 

The good news is that research identifies ways in which some companies are finding success. We outline how CHROs and other senior HR leaders can play an important role in addressing the factors that lie within the direct control of companies.

Identify and Engage, Early and Openly
Organizations should assess women for leadership abilities early. Once they have identified potential future top talent, they can take steps to fast-track them, which can include exposing them to core business functions including operations and finance. These are two areas in which women are less likely than men to get organically exposed.

Strong mentors and sponsors can help by encouraging women to gain these and other critical experiences. Research shows women often require encouragement to initiate mentor relationships, whereas men tend to look for them proactively. This presents an opportunity for HR to serve as the matchmaker to help spark these relationships. 

More broadly, HR must hold their organizations’ leaders accountable for communicating perceived potential to promising women. All too often, women find out only after leaving that their organization had seen great potential in them.

The spice giant McCormick provides a terrific example: In 2016, it created its “Ignite” program to remedy under-representation of women leaders. The company tested women and then empowered managers to engage with them about their potential and how to maximize it. As a result, the company is now well on its way toward its 2025 goal of filling 50 percent of its leadership positions with women.

Provide Stretch Opportunities
In a survey of high performers, the research firm Catalyst found that 62 percent identified stretch assignments as having the greatest impact on their careers. Similarly, Korn Ferry research has identified stretch assignments as the most valuable development experiences.

But too often, unconscious biases shut women out of these opportunities. This is especially true for those in the early stages of their careers. 

When considering how to award plum assignments, men are traditionally judged on their potential while women are evaluated on their past performance. This gives men an early-career advantage. HR leaders can and should mitigate against this bias by challenging women early on with stretch assignmentsand making sure that they are given the right support to thrive in them. In addition, they needn’t passively wait for women to seek (or miss) opportunitiesthey should actively seek out and encourage promising candidates.

Check Your Assumptions 
Why do promising young women leave companies? And what do they want when they return to the workforce? 

Too often, HR leaders assume they know the answers to such questions. They rely on traditional verities such as family obligations spurring a departure or a woman wanting to ease back into the flow when returning from maternity leave. But these workers also leave to start new businesses, gain more flexibility, or to seek better leadership opportunities. And while some returning women do want to reacclimate in a deliberate manner, others are anxious to dive back into the stimulation of work.

How can leaders know what motivates or appeals to individual contributors? The answer is surprisingly simple: ask them. 

There are many ways companies can encourage women early in their careers to make bold moves while balancing personal tradeoffs at home. For example, the pasta company Barilla uses a “Smartworking” program to provide employees with more opportunity to customize their work schedules. It has established aggressive goals for itself in this area, including achieving 95 percent positive responses from employees by next year when asked about having the kind of work-life flexibility they need. 

Foster Inclusivity
Identify discrimination and swiftly root it out. That includes finding structural factors that might enable or conceal harassment, such as team composition or working conditions. Failure in this area will largely render the other steps useless.

HR leaders can ensure that managers and executives can identify and are held accountable for addressing other company blind spots in key talent-decision moments. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for example, has invested heavily in raising awareness of bias and offers training and tools to support inclusivity. This has included innovative approaches such as using blinded resumes, so hiring managers see just the salient details of a job applicant’s skills.

And it should be noted that gender balance in leadership is not only important for mitigating against harassment, but can have a further cascading effect: Prominent, senior role models can become talent beacons, helping to both recruit and retain capable women seeking an environment in which to thrive.

Every day, roughly 10,000 baby boomers retire from the workforce, a departure that leaves a substantial void in the leadership pipeline. HR leaders can choose to see this as a problem or as an opportunity to bring along the next generation of aspiring, talented women leaders. The steps outlined here will help HR leaders avoid the pitfalls and embrace the upsides.

The Authors: 

Rebecca L. Ray, Ph.D., is the Executive Vice President of Human Capital at The Conference Board.

Beatrice Grech-Cumbo is the leader of Advancing Women Worldwide at Korn Ferry and is a Senior Client Partner at the organization.