Helping Women Find the First Rung


Helping Women Find the First Rung

Women face extra challenges that men do not when it comes to getting their foot in the door (or on the first rung of the corporate ladder) to their first leadership position.

Publish Date: November 20, 2019

Read Time: 5 min

Author: Debra Walker

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You may have heard the saying, “A leadership pipeline is only as strong as its weakest link.” That's especially true at the first rung of an organization’s leadership ladder. We can improve the quality of leadership for the entire pipeline by strengthening the selection and development process at that first rung. The first rung is also critical for diversity and gender parity throughout the pipeline. As we work with companies to increase gender parity, we’ve seen that women in leadership roles face additional challenges in their first leadership position.

The 2019 McKinsey Women in the Workplace study confirms our observations: gender equality begins to erode at the frontline and this broken rung “is the biggest obstacle that women face on the path to leadership.” If we focus on fixing the issues at the frontline, there could be a million additional women in the leadership pipeline in the United States alone.

The McKinsey study indicates women are doing their share. They don’t leave the workforce at any higher rates than men and they do ask for promotions as frequently as their male colleagues. So what is happening? Undoubtedly, bias plays a role. Here are three things you absolutely must avoid to fix the broken rung.

Don’t just assume someone isn’t management material.

A painful example of bias came from one client who did internal interviews to understand why they weren’t making progress with promoting more multicultural women into leadership. They found several who had applied for that first-rung position were not selected.

The women candidates had been given glowing feedback on being “special projects queens.” They were competent at getting things done but their leaders didn’t think of them for management positions. Imagine these rejected candidates' discontent and disconnect after successfully completing daunting projects and receiving great feedback, and then getting turned down for leadership roles. Their leaders didn’t turn out to be the sponsors the “special projects queens” expected.

McKinsey reports almost one-third of women say they don’t receive as much sponsorship as men. To start building a culture of sponsorship, organizations can support opportunities for networking that work for women—at varying times, via different modalities, on different themes. Women networking with women has proven to be powerful.

Research published in January 2019 by the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University found that women who communicate regularly with a female-dominated inner circle are more likely to attain high-ranking leadership positions.

But creating space for female-driven sponsorship and networking is just the first step. Male leaders need to play a part and become more comfortable sponsoring and mentoring women. Men still dominate leadership roles, so they must play a role in making the next generation of leaders more diverse.

Don’t make comments and assumptions about women you wouldn't also make about men.

A colleague of mine recently sat in on a talent review session to develop a high potential pool for a wave of frontline leader hiring. When discussing the candidates, he heard bias creep in about women’s priorities and retention risks significantly more often than it did in discussions about the male candidates.

One of the leaders spoke about how a female manager may not be an ideal candidate because her husband had a job that could relocate in the future. Another woman’s candidacy was questioned because “she seemed happy where she was.” While these insights were meant to be helpful, the leaders conducting the talent review, both men and women, showed significant bias against women. Would the reviewers make these comments about the male candidates? Likely not.

As we know from the McKinsey research, promoting women into the leadership pipeline is critical in the pursuit of gender equity in the workplace. One of the most impactful ways to mitigate bias in a talent discussion is to have a clear Success Profile for the leader role. Having a Success Profile that identifies experience, knowledge, attributes and competencies brings fairness, science and accuracy to promotion decisions. It demands that decision-makers offer more than subjective opinions regarding who is ready and who isn’t. And a good Success Profile coupled with an objective assessment helps pinpoint development gaps to target and strengths to leverage so leadership readiness can be accelerated.

Don’t ignore motivational fit and experience.

Another cringeworthy scenario involved a leader attempting to decide between two viable candidates for a leadership role. The female candidate had exhibited formidable leadership qualities in her individual contributor role. She was able to get people on board for initiatives and often highlighted the skills and abilities of her coworkers. She also had a strong motivation to lead.

The male candidate was a strong performer but was more ambivalent about taking the leader role. However, he was promoted because he had completed one certification for the leader role that the woman had not. The required certification turned out to be something that could be completed easily and quickly. Yet the female candidate was rejected for the role she wanted due to this minor requirement.

It's safe to say the female candidate would feel that this promotion process was unfair. She’s not alone. The McKinsey data indicates that only 46 percent of women feel promotions are objective and fair (the percentage is even lower for black women and women with disabilities). Studies consistently show women get less development assignments needed to accelerate their readiness for leadership.

Empowered women empower women.

Sponsoring developmental opportunities specifically for women is a very successful approach to creating cohorts of ready leaders. These learning journeys build skills like influencing, conveying confidence, and defining a leadership brand. Additionally, the participants create a community of support for each other as they climb the ladder. Organizations implement learning journeys for multiple reasons. A learning journey can identify and develop a cohort of women for that first rung or provide support and ensure success for new leaders already in the demanding frontline positions.

To really achieve gender parity, it’s time to double down on the first rung of leadership. Help women have an equal opportunity by providing sponsorship and advocacy for advancement, establishing a leadership Success Profile, and offering differential development to both enhance skills and build a community of support.

Learn more about DDI’s Women in Leadership practice.

Debra Walker loves working with organizations who are focused on driving gender parity at all levels. She also supports our clients’ D&I initiatives to help them unleash all the potential of the workforce. Debra lives in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, where she actively supports people on the autism spectrum, hikes in the mountains, and reads lots of books.

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