“Make It Happen.” That’s the 2015 theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, a global celebration of women’s achievements while advocating for greater equality. Personally, I love this simple call to action that evokes the ever-recognizable Nike “Just Do It” campaign – a refreshing departure from the more traditional focus on building awareness (important, but limited). But it also inevitably brings us to the obvious questions – why HAVEN’T we been able to make it happen? What’s stopping us from making real progress? And what will really move the needle?
It’s certainly not for lack of trying that companies haven’t been successful in changing the face of leadership. Companies have made significant investments in Diversity & Inclusion efforts – building departments, positions, and programs ranging from recruitment efforts to leadership programs to unconscious bias training. It’s also not for a lack of a convincing business case – research shows that companies with diversity are more likely to report improved market share, teams with more women are smarter and more successful, and more women in top management drives more market value. Yet here we are in 2015 – and women still represent less than 5% of S&P 500 CEOs (for a deeper dive on tech-specific numbers, check out this great Everwise post). These challenges go beyond representation – only 11% of organizations report that they currently have an “inclusive” culture.
Having spent years designing women’s leadership programs for Fortune 500 companies and developing D&I strategies for organizations around the world, here are a few things I’ve seen companies get wrong – and the best-in-class strategies and solutions that actually make a difference.
“One and Done” Leadership Programs
Day- or week-long in-person women’s leadership programs have become wildly popular – and for good reason. They provide a safe space for women to discuss their challenges, begin to build important skills, and allow women to engage and network with each other (especially important for mid- to senior-level women who are often the minority in their teams). These programs provide time and space for women to reenergize and dedicate time they might not otherwise to thinking about their careers. But these programs often don’t go far enough. Research from Bain Consulting shows that women enter companies with equal ambition and confidence to reach top management as men but at mid-career, women’s ambition and confidence drops. Women-focused programs and initiatives need to provide ongoing support and learning opportunities – not just spend a few days in a deep dive only to drop women back in their day jobs where what they’ve learned and discussed quickly takes a backseat to the day-to-day grind.
Solution: Keep investing in in-person women’s leadership programs – but make sure that women have access to training and opportunities that provide ongoing development and structured support (e-learning that allows women to work at their own pace and is tailored to their learning objectives can be particularly effective, especially when paired with in-person peer-to-peer components).
“Check the Box” Mentoring
Research shows mentoring in particular makes a difference in advancing diverse groups – not mandatory diversity or manager training. I believe however that it’s not just a matter of WHAT programs companies invest in but HOW they invest in them. Structured, high-touch mentorship (and sponsorship) programs are especially important for women given that, left alone, male leaders tend to channel leadership opportunities to their male protégés. But too many grassroots mentoring programs are simply there to check a box and as a result, mentors and mentees often don’t stay engaged beyond sign up and a first meeting. There are a few reasons for this: mentors and mentees often don’t have the tools or training they need to be effective or think strategically about the relationship (especially for mentors who may never have mentored a woman or diverse employee before), and managers of these mentorship programs are often volunteers without prior experience or have limited capacity to sustain the program and hold participants accountable.
As Leila Ibrahim, Chief Business Officer of Coursera, shared in a recent Forbes article, “So many people talk about the benefits of having a mentor, but very few actually tell you the best way to do it.”
Solution: Don’t settle for a sub-par mentorship program. Mentoring and sponsoring women is one of the most critical investments you can make to support women’s advancement. Leverage industry experts and get support from data- and research-driven programs that help you achieve the results you’re looking for.
“Feel Good”-Only Measurement and Metrics
A 90% or higher program satisfaction rate is a fantastic, validating result – but it doesn’t tell us much about how well that program helped achieve the program’s original purpose. Did participants expand their network as a result of the program? Are they more engaged? Did they earn a stretch assignment or promotion? Identify new mentors and sponsors? Are they less likely to leave the company? Too often, these types of measures aren’t tracked in programs or initiatives that focus on advancing diverse groups. A Bersin by Deloitte study reported that 62% of D&I efforts are not clearly mapped to strategic business outcomes.
Solution: Clearly identify what you’re trying to achieve through your D&I initiatives and make sure you can map any post-program result back to that objective. Even better: take a look at your company data, identify the numbers you want to see change – then design the program based on real challenges and track progress.
It’s obvious that we can’t “Make It Happen” without seriously investing in women and girls. And in the 21st century workplace, this means men AND women leaders mentoring and sponsoring women – giving them the critical relational support they need to get important feedback, navigate office politics, and to be given (and succeed in) high profile, visible roles and stretch assignments. So, let’s do it – what are we waiting for?