The 2016 Women in the Workplace study was released by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company today. Among its findings, of relevance to training professionals are these points:

  • The pipeline of women who become executives is much smaller than that of men – and even tinier for those who become CEO.
  • Women receive less access to development opportunities.
  • Women ask for feedback as frequently as men do, but they don’t receive it as often.
  • While most companies want better gender diversity, they often don’t do what it takes to achieve it.
  • Investing in training is crucial for promoting gender diversity.

Why is it important to L&D that there is still a leadership gender gap? What can L&D do to decrease that gap and increase gender diversity in management and executive roles?

Research demonstrates that diversity improves organizational performance. Last year, McKinsey released a report indicating that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry means.” The National Center for Women & Information Technology reports that gender-balanced companies also “demonstrate superior team dynamics and productivity.” Clearly, the problem of gender diversity is more than a “feel-good” issue.

According to the Wall Street Journal, American Express addresses this problem with a shadowing leadership program. Rising female executives spend the day with a senior leader to provide exposure to the top of the company and develop as leaders. One goal, according to an executive vice president who participates in the program, is “to make sure that we end up with the right pipeline of talent that can be the future leaders of the company.”

Diversity training often gets a bad rap for being something that companies must do but don’t put a lot of effort into making engaging or even successful. They can even alienate some employees, particularly those in the majority. However, knowing the importance of such training, some consultants are working on making it more comfortable to increase engagement and then application of new knowledge.

In an email, Alexis Krivkovich, a partner at McKinsey, said, “Most companies now offer gender diversity training, including unconscious bias training, which is a great start. It’s critical those trainings build leaders’ skills so that they’re equipped to act differently outside the classroom.”

Aside from diversity training, it’s important to make sure that all groups have equal opportunities to develop professionally. According to the Women in the Workplace report, women are less likely to believe they have equal opportunities for growth and development. Entry-level women are especially likely to report they haven’t received a challenging assignment or participated in an important educational opportunity.

While negotiation training for women does help, and women who ask for promotions are 54 percent more likely to report getting one, according to the study, women who negotiate are 30 percent more likely to receive negative feedback than men who negotiate – and 67 percent more likely than women who don’t negotiate. It seems that not only is it important to train women to negotiate, it’s also important to provide training that helps shape managers’ response to negotiation by both genders.

“To level the playing field,” Lean In president Rachel Thomas said in an email, “companies need to treat gender diversity like the business imperative it is, and that starts with better communication, more training, and a clearer focus on results.” According to the study, 51 percent of middle managers and 28 percent of entry-level employees say that they know how to improve gender diversity.

“Today there’s a yawning gap between the intent and impact,” Krivkovich said. It’s vital that companies have two elements to impact gender diversity: (1) making it a business priority and (2) implementing training programs that align with that priority. According to the study, most companies track metrics on women’s representation; however, only 44 percent set pipeline targets, and only 40 percent report that they hold their senior leaders accountable for their performance against gender diversity metrics. Perhaps if companies make gender diversity a priority against which performance is assessed, more work will be done to reach those goals.

In an article for Training Industry Magazine, Shawn Andrews recommends that L&D organizations look at who they are developing, when they are developing them, what issues they’re including in training and how they apply leadership styles as well as educating all employees about the barriers to leadership for women. Sharing data such as the information included in the Women in the Workplace study is a good start.

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