We’re all familiar with the statistics: Only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and 24% of senior roles worldwide are held by women — despite the fact that women are attending college at higher rates than men and that women make up almost half of entry-level roles.

What’s happening? Why are we losing women between the time they start their careers and the time they could be reaching executive levels? According to Beth Haggerty, research has found that it’s a retention problem: Organizations lose women mid-career — not because they want to focus on family or change careers but because the organizational culture “is just not conducive” to a meaningful career or a happy professional life. “Then, they look up, and the C-suite is still so dominantly male, that they don’t see themselves being a part of that. So this unvirtuous cycle begins,” where women leave, so the C-suite doesn’t have any women, so women don’t see role models in the C-suite … and so they leave.

Declare, the organization Haggerty co-founded and now leads as CEO, works to combat this problem through two businesses: Declare Lead, which provides leadership development programs and resources, and Declare Search, a recruitment firm focused on female executives in the financial and tech sectors (industries notorious for their gender gap).

The most common mistake organizations make when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Haggerty believes, “is to focus on hiring only” — setting a broad organizational goal of gender parity and then hiring to meet that goal. If your workforce is 50/50 but your management team is 90% male, you’re not really a diverse or inclusive organization.

That’s why learning and development (L&D) is critical to creating gender parity at every level of the company.

Focused Professional Development

“Women need very focused professional development, particularly as leaders, to help them address very specific needs and hurdles that they face in corporate America,” says Haggerty.

Indeed, Training Industry research has found that women face disadvantages in the leadership development opportunities offered to them, when compared men. Because of this training gap, it is important to ensure that women at all levels of the organization have access to professional development that builds critical leadership skills.

Those skills include strategic planning and negotiation — both of which are important to leadership and both of which are skills taught more frequently to men than to women. They also include, according to Haggerty, public speaking and presentation, storytelling, “radical candor” and managing former peers.

Melissa Scheid Frantz, a professional diversity coach certified by the International Coach Federation, adds self-advocacy to this list. Learning “a conflict resolution approach that will leverage problem-solving, negotiation, communication, goal-setting [and] action planning” helps women advance their careers and better lead their teams. “It is critical for women in the workplace to ‘show up’ in ways that amplify their talents, skills and leadership versus showing up in ways that perpetuate our conditioned narrative of stereotypes and limitations of women,” she adds.

Coaching as an Equalizer

Training Industry’s research found that formal coaching can serve as an equalizer between men and women, resulting in equivalent ratings of leadership development effectiveness between the two genders.

“One-size-fits-all leadership development can’t address the unique requirements of each female leader,” says Silvia Masini, national director of Patina’s human resources and talent management practice, which is where coaching comes in. “A great coach can help the female leader gain courage and be more open to taking risks,” which she says is something many women still find difficult. “The support of an experienced coach … [helps] the female leader gain perspective and strength in order to take bolder, more confident steps in [her] leadership.”

“A combination of individual and group learning assists with customized learning, ongoing practice and reflection, and accountability,” says Scheid Frantz, who says coaching should be a part of that combination.

Similarly, Declare uses “pods,” small peer mentoring groups led by senior women, to facilitate social learning and networking. “That nexus between learning and working with a group on career advancement issues has proved to be a sort of magical mix … because it also fosters deep network-building,” Haggerty says.

Igniting Success

Ultimately, as Declare says, “One woman’s success will ignite another’s.”

“If we’re ever going to get there, we’ve got to be in it together and help each other,” elaborates Haggerty. “You become successful or you have a success, and you immediately, I think now more so than ever … think, ‘I’ve got to give back. I’ve got to help bring other people along.’ And so we have this sort of beautiful giving-getting-giving-giving.”

Indeed, the “queen bee” phenomenon, the trend in which female leaders work to keep other women down out of fear they’ll take their job, is actually largely a myth, only seen in organizations where there is both “gender bias and a lack of gender solidarity,” as sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in The Atlantic in 2016.

As women gain power, says Julie Kantor, president and CEO of Twomentor, LLC, “we also need to step up as mentors and sponsors.” In fact, Twomentor recently announced a partnership with Women in Technology International (WITI) to offer WITI members with mentoring. Partnerships like this one, says Carolyn Leighton, CEO and founder of WITI, helps ensure that “employees gain the benefit of building relationships with a global diverse community of professionals who can help them solve daily challenges and enrich their professional careers.”

“Developing the individual is great,” says Masini. “The collective impact of teams of stronger more effective leaders is greater.” By providing leadership development opportunities to male and female employees, you can create just such a team of strong leaders with diverse perspectives, creating a more effective workforce and a more successful organization.

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