“This is a man’s world,” sang James Brown in 1966. “But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.”

In 2018, while the leadership gender gap tells us that, in some ways, it’s still a man’s world, it’s also still true that both men and women are needed for success. And while there are many possible causes and solutions to the gender gap, learning and development holds at least one key to its extinction. And it will take both men and women to get there.

The Business Case for Gender Diversity

The first step is making a business case for women’s leadership development. In their 2017 “Women in the Workplace” report, LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that when “men believe their organizations prioritize gender diversity because it leads to better business results, they are significantly more likely to think it matters. In the same vein, when men think companies prioritize gender diversity because it is ‘fair to all people,’ they are more likely to be personally committed.” The report concluded from these findings, “Companies need to better communicate that gender diversity efforts are not a zero sum game but rather benefit all employees” and back up gender diversity efforts with a business case supported by data.

Fortunately, we have that data in spades. For example, McKinsey and DDI research has found that gender-diverse companies perform better financially. Companies in the top 25 percent based on gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have returns above their national industry means, and companies whose leadership are at least 30 percent women are 12 times more likely to be among the top-performing companies. Joanna Barsh, co-chair of the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership’s Leadership Working Group and author of “How Remarkable Women Lead,” says it’s also important that a company’s leadership match its customer base. Since, in many industries, that customer base is largely made up of women, gender diverse leadership just makes good business sense.

“More diverse teams actually come up with better solutions,” Barsh adds, “particularly for non-linear, complex problems. Those problems are the ones that most business leaders now face. One single person doesn’t have the skills and experience to solve those problems; you need diversity of thought, diversity of background, different skillsets and experiences.”

On the other hand, researchers from KPMG and the 30% Club believe that a business case alone isn’t enough: “The personal case for gender diversity is a much more powerful lever when advocating for change, especially when the case is made by men.” Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to use emotional and authentic storytelling to make the case as well as business data.

In a turbulent, fast-changing company undergoing transformation, female leaders can be a huge benefit, Barsh says. “On average, women ask a lot of questions, bring a growth mindset, are more participative in terms of getting more ideas and more thoughts and more people, bringing more positive emotion into the workplace … In general, women bring a lot to the table in the kind of times that we’re in.” It’s up to L&D to highlight those experiences and behaviors that we need now and demonstrate that gender diversity will bring them to the organization.

Including Men in the Women’s Club

While women-only training and resource groups have become popular, some experts say that having a mixed audience is beneficial for both men and women. “For development programs to work,” says Giovanna Ramazzina, head of corporate sales for Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development, “they have to reflect the reality that participants face every day. The business world is currently male-dominated, so we not only need women to be able to navigate it with confidence but also men to listen, participate and buy in to our efforts to make it more inclusive and diverse. The biggest problem is that leadership training for women is still seen as an experience for women only. This intensifies the distance between men and women and isolates the issue.” Cathy Light, founder and CEO of Leadership Balance, agrees, saying that new coed programs can help men “be more open to learning how they can be more inclusive.”

Tara O’Sullivan, chief creative officer at Skillsoft, says many organizations are moving away from women-only training and moving toward inclusion councils and other programs that include people in both the majority group (i.e., white men) and people in less represented groups (i.e., women, people of color, etc.). “When you have a critical mass of women in the room,” Barsh says, “I think you actually do create a tremendous benefit, for both the men and the women who are in the program.” Ramazzina recommends having women-only groups for social support and coed groups for learning.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has created some unprecedented gender dynamics in the workplace, including some anxiety on men’s parts to mentor or work alone with women. This, combined with the unconscious, implicit bias that everyone, regardless of gender, possesses to some degree, means that evidence-based anti-harassment and anti-bias training are more important than ever. Help both men and women understand appropriate and inappropriate workplace behaviors as well as how to “catch themselves when they are about to fall into the [unconscious bias] trap,” as Ramazzina puts it. Barsh agrees, saying that “by going into those threshold moments, [L&D can] improve people’s self-awareness and do a great job toward helping all of the men and women who are making those mistakes just do better.”

Finally, include gender topics in executive training. O’Sullivan says that “the tone at the top and the mood at the middle” must be supportive of diversity and inclusion. “No amount of training in the world” will fix the gender gap if the workforce doesn’t believe executives are on board. “Change must start from the top,” Ramazzina says, “and has to be taken as a serious commitment, so we begin any [diversity and inclusion] program by analyzing a real-life case study in the organization. This encourages top teams to open their eyes to what happens in their business and, most importantly, see what helps and what hinders their inclusivity vision.”

Most people – men and women – genuinely want to see more gender balanced leadership. What’s more uncertain is how to make that happen. By engaging both genders in women’s leadership development initiatives, we can create more inclusive cultures, which will translate into better results both for individual leaders and for the organizations they lead.

March was Women’s Leadership Month at TrainingIndustry.com. Check out our research report “Women’s Access to Leadership Development: A Tale of Two Experiences” by clicking here, watch our webinar recording, listening to this podcast episode or read the other great articles we published this month on developing women leaders:

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