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Increasing the representation of women in senior management positions

Increasing the representation of women in senior management positions

By Corporate Leadership Council who can be contacted at www.clcexecutiveboard.com


1. Introduction

Average female participation in management jobs remains very low, with women significantly under-represented in senior positions and clustered in industries and occupations that are segregated by gender.

Linda Wirth, author of a 1997 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report regarding women's corporate progress, states, "Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations…irrespective of their abilities. Women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry."

Although women have generally made progress into management in recent years, aggregate figures mask varying degrees of success at the micro-level. Whilst women have gained increasing representation in middle management ranks, access to the most senior posts is very limited. Even in the United States, where a history of affirmative action and corporate efforts to promote diversity have improved female representation, women accounted for just 11.2 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers in 1997. A United Nations report in the same year stated that women held only two to three percent of top jobs worldwide.

2. Barriers to women's corporate advancement

Literature suggests that obstacles to women's progress into management derive from several sources: constraints are imposed upon them by society, by the family, by employers, and by women themselves. Observers present a number of different arguments to explain why women are not present in large numbers in executive positions. Two of the most powerful barriers are.

# Behavioural expectations regarding women's role in the family represent a very real obstacle to their corporate upward mobility. The majority of the burden of child rearing still is placed on mothers, imposing additional responsibility on a career woman that is often not faced by a man.

# Discrimination in the form of organisational structures and policies. Informal networks and cultures that are male-dominated often become barriers to women's progression. Corporate inequities in advancement opportunities and rewards discourage women from seeking top management positions.

3. Leveraging diversity

Professors David Thomas and Robin Ely have conducted and published several investigations of the connection between workforce diversity and organisational effectiveness. Thomas and Ely argue that previous corporate approaches to diversity have prevented organisations from capitalising on their diversity assets. Thomas and Ely maintain that companies should adopt a holistic approach, designed around the framework of a "learning-and-effectiveness" paradigm — a paradigm that emphasises integration and enhances organisational effectiveness by incorporating employees' varied perspectives into the main work of the business.

The authors identify eight preconditions that companies must satisfy if they are to organize around the learning-and-effectiveness paradigm and fully leverage workforce diversity.

# Leadership must: Understand that a diverse workforce embodies different perspectives and approaches to work, and must truly value variety of opinion and insight.

# Recognise both the learning opportunities and the challenges that the expression of different perspectives present for an organisation and be prepared to persevere.

# Organisational culture must: Create an expectation of high standards of performance from every individual; Stimulate personal development to leverage full abilities of employees; Encourage openness that instills a high tolerance of debate; Make workers feel valued so that they become empowered and committed to the organisation.

# Organisation must: Have a well-articulated, and widely understood mission that enables workers to be clear about their goals; Have an egalitarian, non-bureaucratic structure that promotes exchange of ideas and constructive challenges.

The key to adopting Thomas and Ely's learning and effectiveness paradigm is increased diversity in leadership. The successful leveraging of workforce diversity through this paradigm involves organisational culture change, a change that can most effectively occur from the top down, beginning with diverse leaders who integrate diversity into the very fabric of corporate culture.

4. Tactics to further the advancement of women

In a survey carried out during the early 1990s, several attitudinal and organisational barriers to women's corporate advancement was identified by CEOs and HR professionals.

# Stereotypes and preconceptions concerning women's abilities and suitability for careers in the corporate environment.

# Lack of access to line positions, where women can demonstrate their abilities in positions with clear bottom-line impact.

# Lack of careful career planning and planned job assignments to ensure that women are equipped with broad experience that lends the credibility necessary for senior positions.

# Exclusion of women from informal channels of communication and learning about the operations of the company and opportunities for promotion.

# Counterproductive behaviour of male co-workers.

Companies worldwide have implemented a huge range of programmes and initiatives aimed at overcoming these and similar barriers. Catalyst, the US-based study group focusing on women's corporate advancement, identified the factors below as crucial to successful promotion of gender diversity within organisations.

# Identify and track HIPO women

# Ensure that women have mentors

# Rotate women across functions and ensure they have experience of line assignments

# Take risks with women and offer them visible 'stretch' roles

# Implement succession planning with a focus on women

# Help employees balance work and personal responsibilities

# Hold managers accountable for women's advancement

# Create a comprehensive, sustained initiative

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the tactics that companies can employ in order to increase the representation of women in senior management, but it represents the major features of successful corporate approaches to diversity.

Tactic # 1: demonstrate senior-management support for diversity initiatives

To implement a corporate culture that fully utilises and values workforce diversity,senior executives must take responsibility for engendering cultural changes through theentire organisation. Companies finding success with diversity initiatives typically are led by CEOs who elect to spearhead the organisation's diversity initiative, providing funding and/or high-level support.

As with any other HR initiative, in order for diversity programmes to be successful, they must be firmly rooted in the senior ranks of the organisation. Studies have concluded consistently that diversity measures attempting to short-circuit these foundations are likely to fail. Professionals and authors concur that diversity is not self-managing and that leaders must take a more proactive stance toward their own involvement with employees to drive the initiative. Authors identify three elements of organisational leadership for diversity initiatives:

# Convince organisational leaders that valuing and managing diversity makes sense

This conviction may be present as part of the core values held by the organisation's leaders — hence leaders will quite naturally become prime movers and stimulators of the initiative. However, at times, leaders' convictions must be developed. This may be achieved by enumerating actual demographics and by presenting clear, organisation-specific advantages that impact the bottom-line.

# Translate commitment to diversity into direct and visible support from key leaders

Formal statements to employees, expressions through public speeches and the time and energy dedicated to involvement in diversity management collectively affect perceptions of whether top executives are true diversity role models. On these symbolic occasions, top leaders must do more than say the right thing'; they must act as 'impassioned spokespersons' for diversity objectives to add credibility to the actions of junior executives involved in the implementation of the strategy.

# Formalise leaders' convictions and symbolic expressions into tangible form

Leaders' support for diversity initiatives should be captured in tangible, written form, e.g. expressed in the organisation's mission or vision statements. These vehicles provide an excellent opportunity to underscore the company commitment to diversity management.

Tactic # 2: Provide diversity awareness training

Appropriate sensitisation [to diversity] is only achieved through a well conceived education and training effort. Although education and training will take various forms, the initial step in this area typically will focus on providing information… However, if training fails to extend beyond the phase of enhancing intellectual awareness of diversity (it) becomes an organisationally imposed process that lacks individual ownership and commitment.

Before implementing programmes directed at increasing representation of minority groups in the workforce, organisations must prepare employees to be receptive to the coming changes and to be supportive of the company's objectives. Success of the diversity initiative critically depends on the following two actions:

1. Sensitisation of employees to the complexity of the organisation's diversity issues

2. Reduction of stereotyping and preconceptions that discriminate against women, and which therefore represent the primary obstacle to their advancement

Sensitisation is intended to enable employees to:

# Examine their present views and perspectives toward diversity

# Critically evaluate their beliefs and actions

# Gain a new understanding of the assumptions and behaviours necessary to accommodate and appreciate all co-workers.

Firms provide diversity training via a range of approaches. However, diversity training generally aims to increase employees' awareness of the demographic profile of the organisation, and to challenge any negative preconceptions they may have regarding minority groups. Typical phases of diversity awareness training are:


Awareness training begins with sharing of company-specific demographic information

>>> Goal: To build legitimacy of subsequent training

>>> Method: Presentation of an accurate perspective on diversity, based on current statistics, projections and logical implications for the workforce profile

>>> Delivery: Formal workshops, informational pieces in company publications or exposure to speeches citing diversity figures and references


Traditional training should be extended to be an 'activating experience' that challenges perceptions

>>> Goals: To challenge existing views, thinking, convictions and actions; to address and discuss underlying beliefs and prejudices; to help participants develop roles and actions that are appropriate for dealing with diversity issues that they are likely to confront

>>> Delivery: Introspective exercises, role-playing, focus or discussion groups


Diversity training is intended to be a primer to ready the employee population for subsequent actions

>>> Outcome: Increased responsiveness to the needs and contribution of non-dominant groups within the organisation, which is a critical element in forming the cultural foundations for effective diversity programmes

Tactic # 3: Institute targeted recruitment programmes

Companies in the manufacturing industry face particular challenges due to the overwhelming majority of male employees and the specific work environment. It is typically not an area that draws many female candidates. This has a 'trickle-up' effect as, to advance through the management ranks, employees traditionally begin in line positions.

In countries across the world, women now constitute at least half of the student population in undergraduate courses and half of the graduating university-educated talent pool. This fact, combined with a shrinking skilled labour force and increasing competition for talent, requires that organisations devote significant attention to the recruitment of women. This is particularly true for organisations wishing to increase the representation of women within their workforces, and is a particular challenge for organisations operating in industries that are historically male-dominated.

Companies have recognised that to encourage talent and foster diversity at senior levels within these organisations, it is essential to acquire a more diverse cohort of new entrants. Firms employ various tactics to increase the proportion of female new recruits (at graduate and seniorlevels), alongside other targeted minority groups, since they claim that there is a direct correlation between the acquisition of diverse individuals at entry level and at executive levels.

Tactics include the following:

# Establish targets for recruitment of female entrants and assess performance against the targets

# Heighten recruitment activity at universities with high proportion of female students

# Build relationships with career advisory services to facilitate targeted recruitment

# Establish links with student societies with female members

# Sponsor selected female students through university courses

# Offer vacation internships/work experience to selected female students

# Use search firms with particular connections to female populations

# Ensure selection teams reflect the diversity that the firm seeks in its employee base

Tactic # 4: Identify and Track High-Potential Female Employees

In theory, this [identifying and tracking high-potential women] is simple. Employers need only examine how high-potential men are typically groomed — whether through formal mechanisms like executive education stints at top business schools, or informal means such as key assignments or mentors — and ensure similar opportunities for talented women. In practice, of course, this approach often involves profound cultural change within organisations.

The identification and development of high-potential employees is a crucial element of organisational development at any company intent on maximising performance. In order to leverage the intellectual capital of the entire workforce, it is essential that these processes are inclusive of female talent. This is not to suggest that women are excluded explicitly, but it is essential that talent identification processes do not discriminate against differing work styles and work experiences, and instead concentrate on identifying talent in all its forms. In some cases, companies have found it prudent to focus explicitly upon female talent to ensure that women are not inadvertently 'passed over'.

Tactic # 5: Establish Women's Networking Groups

The most important lesson for women to learn is that they're not in competition with each other for a shortlist of jobs. Women, particularly those in management, are in a unique position to assist one another. Women’s networks provide an excellent opportunity for women to offer support to other women in their companies. Some companies are realising that facilitating this type of communication and cooperation can have significant impact on talented women's progress through their organisations. A pre-1996 survey by the Catalyst group found that at least 250 companies in the US supported such groups, with sizes ranging from very few to as many as 7,000 members.

Tactic # 6: Provide high-potential women with mentors or coaches

Mentors provide support and assistance to help [individuals] propel their careers forward. In some companies, it is difficult to secure top-level promotions without a personal advocate or sponsor. However, not everyone has equal access to this type of learning relationship. A formal mentorship programme can break through barriers.

A 1996 study of top executives at Fortune 1000 companies found that 91 percent of respondents reported having a mentor at some point during their career, and 81 percent viewed their mentor as being either critical or fairly important to their career advancement.

Effective mentors were reported as:

>>> Willing to share information and experience

>>> Knowledgeable about the company and use of power

>>> Able to offer helpful career counselling

However, where mentoring is an informal feature of the working environment, women may be at a disadvantage. Potential mentors — most of whom are white males— tend to choose protégés similar to themselves in terms of gender and background, whom they feel they can identify with and trust. Hence women are often denied full access to this key factor in corporate progression. Formal programmes, which assign protegés to mentors, may overcome these barriers.

Tactic # 7: Provide women with line experience and cross training

Women's concentration in staff functions — and companies' reluctance to allow women to move laterally into line management positions — have (effectively constructed) 'glass walls' as an obstacle many corporate women encounter long before a 'glass ceiling' impedes their upward mobility… For the (promotional) pipeline to contain a critical mass of women requires that significantly more women become plant managers… and other senior line managers with profit and loss responsibility.

For women to reach the top, individuals must manage products or services, clients or customers, or the business of the business' —line jobs that entail profit and loss responsibility and are critical to the finances of the organisation. However, very few women in the corporate world hold roles with this responsibility and are hence not in the 'pipeline' or 'feeder group' for executive positions. Research finds that only six percent of line officer jobs in Fortune 500 companies are held by women. These barriers to women's access to line positions are commonly referred to as 'glass walls.

In many cases, glass walls are due to the persistence of unexamined beliefs concerning women's commitment and abilities — such as their reluctance to take risks, or their distracting commitments to family — and are artificially constraining women's capabilities. It may be that the achievements of some women at the corporate centre have dissipated many of these destructive attitudes, but in many cases, prejudices still exist within decentralised operations.

The practices mentioned thus far, such as awareness training, mentoring, networking and HIPO development, are likely to counter these effects, but in some cases line roles must be provided proactively to women to present them with developmental opportunities and the credibility that only line responsibility can bring.

Tactic # 8: Increase women's visibility by assigning business-critical roles

Companies committed to diversifying their leadership must take deliberate steps to change assumptions and behaviour. Company leaders must ensure that women have equal shots at 'stretch' assignments such as serving on company-wide task forces, being part of a start-up or turnaround operations, and gaining international experience.

Repeatedly, stretch assignments have been proven to be related to differential career tracking for men and women. These opportunities are pivotal for three reasons:

1. Stretch assignments provide professional growth and learning challenges

2. Assignments serve as grooming exercises for career tracks leading to executive positions.

3. Highly visible assignments provide critical access to key decision-makers.

Although approximately 94 percent of US Fortune 1000 CEOs and top women executives deem difficult or highly visible assignments to have been important to their career progression, women can encounter gender-related barriers to gaining these opportunities. In many corporate environments, women must explicitly signal their willingness to take on stretch roles in the face of an assumption that they will not be sufficiently 'interested' or 'committed', whereas men are commonly offered such opportunities proactively.45 A study of women's career progression in Canada revealed that women holding senior corporate positions counted 'seeking out difficult or highly visible job assignments' as one of the three most important strategies for success.

Tactic # 9: Emphasise women in succession-planning process

Companies that are serious about access and mobility for all their employees are recognizing that succession planning is one of the big ingredients. Until there are no glass ceilings at any level, including in the succession planning area, companies aren't going to realise the full potential of all their employees.

In order to ensure that women have equal opportunity to reach senior management levels, it is essential that they are provided with developmental opportunities (such as the visible cross-divisional roles discussed on the previous pages) and that they are then considered in the process of identifying potential future leaders. In some cases, companies have found it effective to build in a women-specific element to their succession planning processes, to guarantee that female high-potentials are considered fully alongside their male counterparts.

Tactic # 10: assist employees in balancing work and personal responsibilities

Top women emphasise their love of their jobs, and the hard work it took to get there. They are not risk-averse. They ask for the challenging assignment. They are totally committed. They hardly stop for air, much less to have babies. Yet have families they do.

Family responsibilities can be a restriction on employees' advancement through an organisation, either if they actually inhibit time available to an employee for work-related tasks and activities, or if they are perceived by decision-makers to inhibit employees' commitment to their work.

These forces apply to men as well as women, but since women are still commonly expected to bear the larger burden with respect to family responsibilities, female employees tend to be at a greater disadvantage. Research carried out by the UK-based research agency MORI in 1997 found that for nine out of ten people, the ability to balance work with their personal lives was a key factor in determining their commitment to employers. Companies are beginning to respond to this fact.

In order to retain women, enhance their productivity and facilitate their advancement into managerial roles, organisations have implemented 'work-life' or 'family-friendly' programmes aimed at countering the negative behavioural and attitudinal influences described above. In the main, these initiatives are attachment-based, time-based, or child-care based.

# Attachment-based programmes

These include maternity and childbirth leave, early child-care leave available to either parent, sick-child leave and a range of alternative family or medical leave entitlements. In some cases, guarantees are offered to individuals to safeguard their position or level of seniority and the continuation of their health and other benefits. In addition, companies often offer programmes such as telecommuting, which utilise new technologies to enable employees to work from home for at least some part of their working week.

# Time-based programmes

These include flexible work schedules, job-sharing, part-time work, compressed work weeks, and reduced duties, all of which offer employees the flexibility to manage home-work conflicts as best suits them, while maintaining productivity levels.

# # Childcare-based programmes

These include both on- and off-site corporate childcare, organisational referral to help employees find reliable childcare and corporate subsidies for childcare services, all intended to enable employees to commit time to work tasks.

Although work-life benefits and programmes are often cited as bringing positive results in terms of the retention of women employees, their effectiveness may be impeded by attitudinal factors. Research has indicated that companies with the best family-oriented benefits (including family leave, flextime etc.) have low take-up rates on these benefits and have some of the worst records for promoting women. This is potentially due to unwritten and unexpressed rules that 'punish' employees utilising these family-friendly programmes. Factors such as 'long hours cultures' can undermine the intended positive effects of work-life programmes.

Tactic # 11: Hold management accountable for diversity progress

Organisations that are most successful in achieving managerial diversity clearly have human resources systems and practices that hold managers and executives accountable for achieving diversity objectives and encourage them to actively develop women.

HR professionals in companies where diversity awareness training and programmes have been instituted commonly grapple with the issue of how to ensure that diversity objectives or goals are continuously supported throughout the organisation, even when initial training and promotion of the issue is completed. In addition, employers are searching for ways to ensure that diversity becomes an integral part of the organisation's culture, in order to gain competitive advantage.

Organisations have discovered that holding people accountable for behavioural and business changes in the diversity arena and paying for performance can build an organisational culture that is supportive of diversity and leverages employee diversity for competitive advantage. Although during early diversity efforts it may be necessary to establish special accountability measures to measure the success of initiatives such as awareness training, the literature advocates building accountability into the organisation's core appraisal processes.

A 1998 Conference Board report found that US companies increasingly are instituting diversity initiatives and are also strongly enforcing accountability, using a variety of sophisticated tools, including:

>>> Equal employment opportunity and affirmative action metrics

>>> Employee attitude surveys

>>> Cultural audits

>>> Focus groups

>>> Management and employee evaluations

>>> Accountability and incentive assessments

>>> Training and education evaluations

Opinion differs concerning the extent to which organisations tie management remuneration to performance against diversity objectives. The US-based Conference Board claims that meeting these objectives now accounts for 20 to 25 percent of all management bonuses and incentives.

The US-based Society for Human Resources Management, in contrast, found in 1998 that more than 50 percent of its members did not tie compensation and performance to diversity goals.60

Companies employ a variety of qualitative (behavioural) and quantitative measures in order to gain a comprehensive assessment of performance against diversity objectives. Below is an example of a qualitative assessment of senior management’s commitment to diversity objectives.



1. Does the manager include diversity initiatives in the strategic business plan? Does the manager demonstrate an understanding of diversity as a strategic asset?

2. Does the manager communicate clear diversity utilisation strategy and expectations, and demonstrate personal involvement, within the organisation?

3. Does the manager demonstrate personal involvement in recruiting efforts designed to increase workforce diversity?

4. Did the manager develop and fund a diversity training strategy?

5. Did the manager create opportunities to develop high-potential women and blacks, and disabled employeees in front-line and profit-and-loss positions?

6. Did the manager initiate formal or informal mentoring programmes between senior managers and promotable black, female and disabled employees?

7 Did the manager implement an affirmative action plan?

8. Did the manager initiate a strategic plan to seek out qualified women- and previously disadvantaged women owned suppliers?

9. Did the manager support the activities of one of the company's minority and special interest groups by providing office space, work-leave and equipment? Is the manager involved with any external diversity organisation?

10 Did the manager recognise and showcase accomplishments in diversity utilisation?


One point is assigned for successfully meeting the requirements of each gauge. Although pay or bonuses are not tied to diversity management scores, managers must demonstrate support for diversity to be eligible for promotion. On the basis of total scores, poor performers are identified to meet with the CEO to discuss their performance, reasons for their failure to meet the diversity gauge requirements and possible tactics to overcome problems.

Tactic # 12: Create a comprehensive sustained diversity strategy

Isolated diversity initiatives are unlikely to be effective unless they are fully supported by a comprehensive strategy that tackles preconceptions to engender a culture which values diversity, welcomes the new opportunities provided and celebrates the successes realised.

Successful advancement of women critically depends on a sustained and comprehensive strategy; isolated short-term, 'quick-fix' approaches will not leverage organisational diversity.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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