Women's leadership programmes work – but their progress is 'fragile' - iWONDER

  08 March 2024    Read: 807

Talent accelerators are touted as a way to boost women to leadership positions. They help – but require larger change for their effects to stick.

Since 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has tracked gender parity in worldwide economic opportunities, education, health and representation in political leadership. The gender gap is nearly closed for health outcomes and education, says Silja Baller, head of mission, diversity, equity and inclusion at the WEF.

However large gaps remain for economic participation and political representation. "There seems to be a gap between the educational outcomes and how women are faring in the labour market subsequently, " she says. Women have largely achieved the same education levels that men have, but it doesn't seem to be affecting their access to jobs.

There are myriad reasons for the gender gap in leadership – among them, lack of affordable childcare, the so-called "motherhood penalty" and outright discrimination. Women are also gender stereotyped. While women's performance ratings often exceed men's, they're more likely to receive lower ratings for potential. Women tend to doubt their capabilities, too. According to a 2024 report by executive search firm Russell Reynolds, women who want to climb the ladder are nearly twice as likely as men to believe they're not qualified for their manager's job.

These kinds of elements produce overrepresentation at low company ranks, and underrepresentation at the top. "On average, we have about 46% women in entry-level positions, but that drops to 25% at the C-suite level," says Baller.

The composition of the corporate workforce showed signs of turnaround for nearly a decade, but that success was short-lived. "The hiring rates of women into leadership was increasing steadily for eight years until 2022," says Baller. "However, in 2022 we see a downturn in this hiring into leadership positions." The reason for that downturn remains unclear, she says. It's something her team is still studying.

Where women are absent in leadership positions, some companies, including Lloyd's of London and Baker Hughes, are instituting programmes that focus on developing women's careers. The World Economic Forum found in 2023 that 79% of private-sector companies have implemented diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes that focus on women. Others, like LeanIn.org, which advocates for and trains women to advance their careers, have created independent programmes available to anyone who wants to access the curriculum.

Yet the leadership gap stubbornly persists. In 2023, LinkedIn researchers estimated women held less than one-third of leadership positions worldwide. Talent accelerators may be able to promote some women into leadership roles, but the root causes of the gender leadership gap remain beyond their reach.

Stepping over the 'broken rung'

Initiatives for developing female leaders go by many names – sometimes called 'talent accelerators' or 'leadership development programmes' – but the goal is the same: to promote women into leadership positions and keep them there.

If these programmes succeed, benefits are plentiful. First, there is evidence to suggest that companies with gender-diverse leadership teams are more profitable, and employee turnover can cost a company millions every year. The knock-on effect of good PR also can't be ignored.

Most participants are high-performers on the cusp of individual contributor and manager, a stage when women's careers are stalled or derailed by a penalty known as the "broken rung" on the career ladder. Though men and women are roughly equally represented in entry-level roles, for every 100 men promoted to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, according to the 2023 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org. It's a gap that widens at the highest levels of business.

Development programmes focus on building soft skills, like public speaking, confident communication, negotiation and asking for a promotion. Plenty of organisations teach new technical skills to their workers, says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org. Curricula for accelerators are intended to develop the skills women need to supplement those technical skills and become effective leaders. Talent accelerators also often facilitate networking, especially with senior leaders, intended to correct unequal access to mentoring and sponsorship that help workers climb the ladder.

Like all accelerators, LeanIn's training curriculum considers gender paradigms in the workplace. "It was developed not only for what you need to do to be an effective negotiator or a transformational leader but also, 'what are some of the unique considerations if you're doing that as a woman or a woman with a traditionally marginalised identity? If you're a new mother, what are some strategies? What do you need to know about the pushback you might get?'".

Thomas knows how this sounds: as if women are to blame for their failure to advance. "We need the workplace to change fundamentally, to be more supportive of women, particularly women with traditionally marginalised identities. Hard stop," she says. "As irritating as it is, I would like women to have the insights and practical tips they need to navigate a workplace that's still biased against them."

Gizelle George-Joseph, chief operating officer of global investment research at Goldman Sachs, went through her company's accelerator, the Women's Career Strategies Initiative, 14 years ago. She honed her communications skills and received direct reviews of her presentation style. What she remembers most is meeting executives. "The COO and president were presenting early one morning, and I remember asking a question and thinking, 'Wow, I am this close to the executive office, and I get to ask questions to the COO and president'."

Many companies in heavily male-dominated industries, like energy and finance, are putting time and energy into their programmes. The success of these initiatives is often gauged by promotion rates. At global energy company Baker Hughes, the firm introduced its women's talent accelerator, Cultivate, in 2017. Baker Hughes says 40% of participants in their oil and energy sectors from the 2021 and 2022 cohorts have been up at least one level.

Insurance marketplace Lloyd's of London launched its programme, Advance, in 2020 following a scathing 2019 Bloomberg article that exposed a culture of sexual harassment in the company. Advanced participants get access to senior leaders in the company, training on networking and insight into their leadership styles. Lloyd's head of culture Mark Lomas told the BBC all participants from the 2021 cohort have landed a "role improvement", such as taking on a project above their normal scope of responsibility or receiving a promotion, within two years of completion.

The 'fragile' reality

Training alone doesn't promote and keep women in leadership, however. "Those programmes are most effective and impactful if they're embedded in larger systemic changes in the organisation," says WEF's Baller.

According to the WEF and McKinsey & Company, equity programmes are most successful when there is a clear definition of success and rigorous tracking; leadership is involved and accountable; the firm understands the root cause of gaps; and the curriculum is designed for success within the specific company running the programme.

Yet for women in leadership, progress is precarious. Since the pandemic, "women's economic participation has regressed rather than recovered", according to a June 2023 WEF report. "We learned during the [Covid-19] crisis that any progress that has been achieved can be quite easily reversible if the external conditions change," says Baller. "We had achieved quite a bit of progress, but it turned out that it was quite fragile."

Talent accelerators may produce female leaders and role models, but they have little apparent effect on long-term cultural penalties and the bad habits formed in the workplace. "The more they can be embedded in larger structural change," says Baller, "the more resilient the positive impact is going to be."

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