There’s a lot written about the top-down role of senior leadership in driving gender diversity in organisations. A lot of time, focus and money is devoted to the diversity and inclusion education of top executives (with the expectation of a trickle down effect through the organisation’s culture). There’s also a lot of attention placed on getting women on boards; and on creating gender role models at senior levels.
This top down activity is really important, although some critics suggest that there’s too much emphasis on development at the most senior levels (Dixon, 2017). There’s no doubt in my mind that buy-in at the most senior levels is vital for gender diversity, however I do think we have to pay attention to what’s happening for early career women.
Women fall away in their first two years
Some large scale US based studies (Bain&Co.2014; Bain&Co. with LinkedIn 2017; McKinsey with LeanIn.org, 2017), supported by Australian statistics (Gahan et al 2016; McKinsey/WGEA/BCA, 2017), report that it’s during the early (0-2 years) to middle career years (2-5 years) that women fall way behind in both aspiration and confidence.
Women start off with high levels of aspiration and confidence, yet somewhere in that 2-5 year period, it all crumbles. Check out these statistics from Bain&Co. (2014)
Julie Coffman and colleagues at Bain&Co (2014, 2017) found that there were 3 critical problem areas for junior women:
1. The problem of stereotypes. Women don't feel like they fit in to conventional or idealised stereotypes of the career pathway to success. Success looks like it’s about working impossibly long hours, taking on big projects, relentless self-promotion and networking.
The solution? Companies need to promote diverse work practices and heterogeneous role models. Give people the message that there are many different pathways to the top. This is really important for women because in Australia at least, 60% of women in the workforce are part time or casual, (wgea.gov.au 2017) and it is very easy for them to assume that they won’t have access to senior roles.
2. The problem of supervisor support. Women felt unsupported, with manager dialogue tending to be transactional rather then relational. Sometimes a male manager would be hesitant to have one on one meetings with a junior female, and many frontline managers ‘… are often unsure abut the expectations for developing their employees, much less how to provide the level of support and professional development their employees need.’ (Bain, 2014)
The solution? Provide education and coaching for frontline and middle managers so that they can provide effective leadership and career development for their teams. Easy!
3. The problem of role models. This is a chicken and egg problem. Having too few female role models at senior levels limits the aspiration and self-belief required to rise to senior levels. But it’s more complex than this. Women need multiple role models (male and female, and at every level of seniority) who are relatable. Coffman notes that senior leaders, for example, do in fact make use of flexible work practices themselves, but you’ll never hear about it. Their stories are not shared, resulting in what she calls a ‘muting’ of dialogue about work-life balance.
The solution? Women need a variety of role models who have done things differently in achieving success, rather than only seeing role models who appear to embody the ‘perfect stereotype’ of a career focused woman. Role models can be hybrid, i.e. spread across different people, including different genders.
“In the workplace it’s the frontline managers who walk next to women every day and can exert significant influence on their development as leaders.” (Bain&Co, 2017)
The critical role of frontline and middle managers
The quality and effectiveness of frontline managers is critical to keeping women on a career pathway. Frontline managers can play an important role in supporting the aspirations and confidence of women so that they stay in the leadership game. Meaningful manager-employee dialogue, active championing of women, identifying and promoting diverse pathways to success, and good coaching practices – doing all this will go a long way to building gender diversity at senior levels. (Bain&Co. 2017)
This importance of frontline managers in leadership development for women is echoed in the recent Australian Women in Leadership Study partnered by McKinsey, WGEA and BCA (November 2017). They cite 'Investing in frontline manager capabilities to drive cultural change' as being one of the 10 key practices to get more women into senior roles.
Gahan, P., Adamovic, M., Bevitt, A., Harley, B., Healy, J., Olsen, J.E., Theilacker, M. (2016) Leadership at Work: Do Australian leaders have what it takes? Melbourne: Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne.