Cracking the Code for Women in Leadership

Ask any CEO whether they think diversity is an important business issue, and you are unlikely to hear anything other than ‘yes’. Most CEOs understand that building a workforce that reflects the society in which their organisations operate, and the customers they serve, can be highly beneficial. While we have seen significant progress made towards achieving gender parity at entry level in most industries, in spite of substantial investments in diversity initiatives and women’s leadership programmes, the representation of women at more senior levels in organisations remains stubbornly low.

Why is this? Our research at CRF suggests that one of the key reasons that diversity programmes have not yielded better results is that organisations have focused on increasing the proportion of under-represented groups, rather than tackling the underlying culture. However, we have found that organisations that go beyond simply focusing on numbers and address the underlying climate and behaviours that determine whether people feel included, are not only achieving their diversity goals, but are also seeing substantial improvements in engagement, creativity, and performance. They are building an ‘inclusive culture’.

So what do we need to do to build more inclusive cultures? We found that successful organisations tend to focus on two areas:

  1. They have better, more objective, systems and processes for making hiring and promotion decisions. In spite of scientific research over decades showing that interviews are extremely poor at predicting who is likely to be a high performer, they are still the predominant method of recruitment in most organisations. Similarly, selection for the talent pipelines that feed into senior leadership positions tends to be based on the subjective opinions of line managers rather than a data-driven assessment of potential. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues, this tends to favour ‘confidence’ – a characteristic which occurs more frequently in men than women-over ‘competence’. The result is that competent women who don’t demonstrate the traits most likely to get them selected are unfairly overlooked, and we perpetuate a system that rewards hubris over effectiveness. The field of behavioural economics has shown that, even if people intend to behave rationally, they still unconsciously make decisions based on snap judgements, shortcuts or biases. So what can we do instead? Decision makers can be ‘nudged’ towards more inclusive outcomes by redesigning people processes to remove innate bias. For example, some companies insist that the gender split of candidates for promotion reflects the gender split of the grade they’re being promoted from. So if 40% of your VPs are female, 40% of the candidates for promotion to SVP should also be female. Technology can unlock wider and deeper talent pools, and can be used to make selection processes ‘blind’ to characteristics such as gender and race which are irrelevant to performance.
  2. They pay attention to the values, attitudes and behaviours of leaders, both at senior leadership and front-line management level. In organisations with inclusive cultures, senior leaders visibly ‘own’ the agenda for building a more inclusive workforce. This means going beyond simply saying the right things. Accountability for building and sustaining an inclusive culture is broadly shared among leaders at all levels, not just seen as HR’s responsibility. Leaders follow up the inclusivity rhetoric with consistent action. And they link the case for building an inclusive culture explicitly to the organisation’s core purpose, business strategy and values.

We found that what really makes a difference is the relationship individuals have with their line manager and colleagues. Managers create a sub-culture within their teams that determines whether or not each team member feels included at work. So although top-down leadership initiatives can be helpful, we think it’s critical to select line managers and supervisors for people rather than technical skills, and to invest in teaching line managers how to create a culture within their team that allows everyone, regardless of their gender, race, or any other characteristic, to have an equal voice.

Interested in exploring what’s new in the field of D&I? Join CRF on Thursday 10 September 2020 for Diversity and Inclusion for the 2020s: New Imperatives and Enduring Challenges. Further information here.

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