The leadership gender imbalance is a crucial challenge our clients are facing and one that requires organisational change. A multifaceted, complex issue where societal, personal and cultural factors come into play. We provide a range of tailored solutions including in-house sponsorship programs and initiatives to support the development of an inclusive leadership culture.
We're facing a diversity fatigue: Let's talk inclusion instead
By Maud Lindley, Founding Director, Serendis Leadership Consultancy.
Originally published on Women's Agenda
Despite the diversity focus, women still only represent 27.4% of management personnel across the nation. Here is some good news: Hardly a week goes by without someone, somewhere in corporate Australia talking up the need for greater gender diversity on boards or senior management.
And here is the not so good news: the statistics are not showing much change.
In spite of the prolific literature and discussion around this topic, the lack of gender diversity at the top levels of our corporate world is a complex issue which is often misunderstood. Leadership gender imbalance is affected by a range of societal, personal and cultural factors and when we attempt to simplify the issue or its solutions, we run the risk of stereotyping stakeholders and the benefits of different approaches, which can be unhelpful at best, misleading at worst.
Over the last few years, organisations, media and consultants have been looking for the silver bullets. Different approaches have been taken and when looking back over the last decade, we remember different trends leading to waves of initiatives within our corporate world: leadership development programs for women, mentoring programs, unconscious bias trainings, focus on flexible work practices, sponsorship programs, the list goes on.
Unfortunately, conducted in isolation and without sustainable focus, these approaches cannot create long-lasting change. In fact, they have led to a sense of fatigue around the topic.
And this is particularly problematic when it comes to addressing the number of women in leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as banking, finance and property. The lack of progress is reflected in the latest statistics published by the Federal Government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which show that women represent only 27.4% of management personnel across the nation.
In order for the diversity conversation to be impactful, we need to start addressing the real issue: inclusion. Meaningful results will come from an understanding of what cultural change really means and requires.
In an inclusive culture we'd see leaders throughout an organisation seek and value a diversity of perspectives, styles and thinking preferences. The value of a diverse leadership can only be harnessed through an inclusive culture that leads to the dynamic of healthy conflicts and dialogue (the very principles of high performing teams). Enhanced business outcomes, increased bottom-line performance will only come out of an inclusive approach to diversity.
This is much harder than we think and the human brain still needs to adapt to create a systematic culture of inclusion. Rather than approaching the issue with isolated initiatives, we need to accept that there is no silver bullet.
We need to employ a range of levers to promote a deep and effective focus on cultural change:
1. Engage male leaders to recognise the need for a cultural change, and understand how the dynamics of inclusive leadership leads to enhanced performance.
2. Understand the impact of unconscious bias and stereotypes around leadership, men and women. Large campaigns of unconscious bias trainings have unfortunately led to a false sense of achievement. If you are human, you have unconscious cognition. This impacts your decision making process whether you are male or female in very similar ways. A consistent awareness, focus and dedication to developing personal mindfulness is required for leaders to truly embrace inclusion. This will take time, consistent efforts and organisational practices that identify and value exceptional leadership.
3. Facilitate systematic inclusive networking, mentoring and sponsorship opportunities for a diversity of talent. Senior men need to become more conscious about developing strong relationships with women at work to offer them the same informal mentoring and sponsorship opportunities that are offered to their male peers. Similarly, women need to recognise the importance of developing their networks with senior leaders within and outside their organisations.
4. Focus on the female pipeline to make sure that a broad range of talented women are being given opportunities to develop the experiences and the skills required to succeed in leadership roles. To strengthen the pipeline, organisations may need to look at nontraditional recruitment practices to attract individuals with non-linear career paths.
Serendis is expanding Australia's first cross-industry return to work initiative, now in it's second year.
The Career Returners initiative empowers professional women and men who are ready to return to work by offering them a paid secondment within participating organisations. The program incorporates individual and group coaching , and the possibility to secure permanent employment.
The success of these programs overseas and recent popularity here in Australia highlights the opportunity for businesses in Australia to reach otherwise untapped, professionals.
Career Returners centres on a secondment for qualified, professionals who have had a career break and want to return to the corporate sector. Each secondee receives coaching and ongoing development training by Serendis during the program.
Mentoring or Sponsorship?
Is one approach better than the other to enhance gender diversity?
By Maud Lindley, Founding Director, Serendis Leadership Consultancy
In spite of the prolific literature produced around this topic, the lack of gender diversity at the top levels of our corporate world is a very complex, multifaceted issue which is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. A range of societal, personal and cultural factors come into play to affect the leadership gender imbalance. When attempting to simplify the issue or its solutions, we run the risk of stereotyping stakeholders and the benefits of different approaches, which can be unhelpful at best, misleading at worse.
I have often read or been asked to comment on the comparative value of mentoring and sponsorship to support the progression of more women in top leadership roles. I don't believe in categorical statements and I strongly believe that both the practice of mentoring and sponsorship are required to help progress the issue. I also believe that one is a necessary conduit to the other given the current context.
Over the last five years, I have personally interviewed hundreds of women and men, stakeholders of the banking, finance and property industries. With no exception, all senior leaders, irrespective of gender, report that mentors and sponsors were crucial contributors to their success.
Earlier on, when the issue of gender diversity was first addressed by organisations and the media, we made the mistake of wanting to 'fix women'. For several years, the topic of women's leadership development and mentoring was often the single core focus. Unfortunately, it has led to a simplistic stereotype message: 'women need help'. Mentors, who are senior business leaders and therefore in the current context, most often men, have been stereotyped as the 'helpers'. We need to move away from these labels which are only making the very issue we are fighting against, more salient.
To be absolutely clear, I don't believe women need mentoring more than men do. I believe both men and women achieve successful results in their career with the help of mentors, advisors and sounding boards. The issue though is that men have more regular access to advice from mentors through informal relationships within or outside their organisations.
Most young male executives tend to receive informal mentoring and sponsorship from male role models and leaders within their organisations. Indeed, they usually connect more easily and generally have more opportunities to participate in activities outside of work that foster these relationships. Offering structured mentoring and sponsorship programs to women exclusively provides them with an opportunity they don't have and which has been identified as a key factor of career success.
The fundamental difference between mentoring and sponsorship lies in the personal commitment a leader makes about the results achieved by their protégé. In a mentoring relationship, the mentee drives the agenda, uses their mentor as a sounding board and is solely responsible for the achievement of the objectives they have set.
A sponsor however, accepts responsibility for the promotion of their protégé. They identify what is required for their professional growth and provide feedback to help them achieve these results. More importantly, a sponsor will personally fight, protect and advocate for their protégé's recognition and promotion in the organisation. Sponsorship focuses on career advancement and is predicated on power. It is a powerful differentiator in helping anyone to be appointed on visible, crucial projects and clients.
Our experience shows that both mentoring and sponsorship approaches are extremely useful throughout an executive career and successful individuals systematically report the use of both a mentor and a sponsor to achieve their professional goals.
They use their mentor as a sounding board to boost their confidence and help them develop technical, interpersonal and leadership skills. With their mentor, they can address personal challenges and doubts. They are willing to be challenged to change their perspectives and try new behaviours, sometimes outside their comfort zone.
With their sponsor, however, the conversation focuses on their strengths and career aspirations. Their sponsor needs to be in a position to advocate for them and promote their strengths, their achievements and the value they bring to the organisation.
Both conversations are crucial but vastly different.
Women tend to struggle to be recognised for their leadership potential because this is a crucial transition and one that requires a leap outside their comfort zone. Typically, when looking at their career opportunities, women tend to emphasise on their skills, their expertise and previous experience whilst men emphasise on their potential. We also deal with the issue of perception and unconscious bias: women who do promote themselves 'atypically' will be discriminated against on the grounds of being too 'aggressive'.
Whilst their sponsors will be pivotal to help bridge this gap, mentoring conversations will also allow them to openly discuss and address their challenges in promoting themselves genuinely and powerfully. I don't believe you can have these open conversations with people who are in a position to promote or sponsor you and trust they will still be effective at it when they know the hesitations or 'inner-challenges' you are facing. And this is true for men and women.
So how do we indeed encourage more leaders to sponsor women within their organisations? Can we set up structured sponsorship programs in the same way as we have developed mentoring programs?
Unfortunately, this is not directly comparable. I don't believe you can expect participants of a structured program to sponsor another individual if that relationship has not developed organically over time. Trust and intrinsic belief in the value and the capabilities of the protégé are of the essence for the sponsor to seize the right opportunity and put their own reputation on the line when recommending a candidate.
As we highlighted earlier, male leaders are not often developing these strong, trust based relationships with female key talent. If we cannot structurally appoint them to sponsor women within their organisations, we can influence the way they develop these relationships organically and their understanding of the crucial need for them to do so in the context of gender diversity objectives.
We can expect them to mentor women as part of a structured program which also helps them to understand the different approaches women tend to have toward self-promotion, networking and sponsorship. In the dialogue with an appointed mentee, particularly when this dialogue is open, honest and free of the constraints of political correctness, they learn to see things from their mentees' perspective. Both mentees and mentors confront their beliefs and expectations of the right approach to sponsorship and the leadership promotion pathways.
Through a formal mentoring process, female mentees are supported to reflect on how they can develop the key relationships which will become crucial sponsors for their career, and male mentors discover how important it is for them to proactively seek out these conversations with women within their organisations.
From this perspective, I would say that formal mentoring programs are a fantastic tool to enhance the active sponsorship of women throughout the industry. We absolutely need to be more vocal and explicit on the need for senior male executives to sponsor women: mentoring programs help them understand why and how.
The value of diversity is in the dialogue, the exchange and the dynamic that a group of diverse people achieve together. Contrary to what we may have thought in the past, the value of diversity does not come from the addition of different skills brought by different gender, cultural or ethnic groups. There are actually very little differences between the skills that women and men bring to the corporate world and stereotyping those is not helpful. Research demonstrates that the value of a diverse executive team is its ability to take into account a variety of different perspectives and challenge each other to achieve better business outcomes.
With this concept in mind, it becomes obvious that to truly harness the value of diversity, executives need to enhance their inclusive skills. Unconscious cognition and its natural biases can impede the dynamic of inclusivity and this is not a gender trait. Both men and women can develop their acumen of what truly drives their own instinctive decision making process for better business outcomes.
A mentoring conversation is the most powerful way to enhance our respective understanding of the value of the different perspectives men and women bring to the leadership table. It helps develop inclusive skills which draw on our capability to listen and confront our own beliefs.