Women face a myriad of obstacles in the workplace that serve to disproportionately hold them back from growth and advancement, especially when it comes to leadership. Some of these obstacles include: getting selected during the hiring and promotion processes; fitting in with organizational cultures imbued with masculine values; tokenism; challenges in obtaining desirable assignments; difficulty with relocation; and fewer opportunities for networking/creating social capital, all of which contribute to a significant and well-documented disadvantage.* Widely available data on the lack of gender parity in the number of women in leadership ranks, as well as in their pay, speaks to the quantifiable impact of this disadvantage.

Given these numbers, any call to action for improving the situation for women in organizations seems clear and obvious. Yet, efforts to advance women leaders often face resistance before they are ever launched. Companies that are most effective at advancing women these days recognize that it isn’t enough to build a business case and strategy. They must also be able to compassionately and effectively address stakeholder concerns about reverse discrimination. If leaders in these companies hear employees complaining about the potential unfairness of special opportunities for women, they are aware the concerns likely stem from an uninformed assumption of starting-point equality. What are actually fast-paddling efforts to try to “catch women up” to opportunities provided to men (or at least move women in that direction), are inaccurately perceived or portrayed as initiatives designed to put women ahead.

What can organizations do? In addressing concerns of any majority group, it’s always hard, of course, to ask the kid with the biggest pile of marbles to give up a few. An effective leader must show the child that, in this case, they won the game with help; the floor was slanted. But then, the best leaders and companies also effectively demonstrate how much more fun and engaging the game is for all to play on an even surface.

Unfortunately, even resounding success in building an appetite for diversity and inclusion still isn’t enough. Companies that demonstrate the best results in advancing women leaders: 1) take active steps to improve the environment for all members of underrepresented groups and 2) provide women with specific opportunities, skills and tools to help them overcome unique obstacles.

Is Your Organization Serious about Advancing Women?
How would you describe the culture of your organization when it comes to women in leadership? Are there women in important and respected leadership roles? Do executives signal confidence in these women leaders? Companies working to build a culture inviting to women generally have specific initiatives in place. These may involve coaching for senior executives around symbolic action (e.g., reinforcing messages of inclusion), unconscious bias training for employees, and active policies that ensure women are treated with respect. Hallmarks of an inclusive culture may also include a tendency to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of ideas, and a focus on the quality of employees’ work (versus, for example, the number of hours worked).

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