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One Thing Can Promote Gender Parity in Leadership

Hint: It’s not expensive. It’s not a program, and it’s not going to happen without direct managerial input.

What if there was one thing that could pave the way for more women leaders in today’s workplace? What if that one thing didn’t cost much beyond a little time and effort? What if that one thing was something that should already be happening, whether leadership is the ultimate goal or not?

If you were a leader, would you do it?

Well, if you are so inclined — here’s hoping — you can. I’m not spinning a fairytale. This isn’t a clever lead-in to a soap box filled with cotton candy-colored, gender parity-fueled dreams. It’s real. The one thing that leaders can do to advance women into leadership roles is — ta-da — have career conversations.

I know. You were expecting something dramatic, right? Something with stars, spangles, at least a little glitter and shine. But that’s it. Talk. And talk purposefully with a developmental eye toward the future.

It doesn’t seem like much, but according to “Women, We Have a Problem,” a new study from Right Management, career conversations will do a lot to help women advance in the workplace. The study surveyed 2,200 women in 15 countries, and data reveals only one in four women have regular career conversations with their manager on how to develop leadership skills. I wonder what that number is for men? 3 out of 4? 3.5 maybe? Worse, 1 in 5 women have ongoing career conversations with their manager, and one in five women have never had an assessment of their skills.

Yikes.

But in the way of all why-the-hell-didn’t-I-think-of-that-it’s-so-freakin’-simple ideas, having more career conversations makes perfect sense. I mean, how else can managers identify a woman’s strengths and figure out how to exploit them? How else can we — I too am a manager — identify a woman’s weaknesses and target developmental opportunities to elevate her skills? How else can we suss out which roles she is best suited for, which ones she’s interested in, and create a plan to get her on the leadership track?

Career conversations — bless their intrinsically simple little hearts — essentially guide a woman’s work life in the right direction. Of those surveyed, women revealed the only “regular” time they have career conversations is during their reviews. And sadly, we all know in many companies, reviews only happen annually. That’s way, way too late for any kind of meaningful learning or performance improvement — let alone a leadership development chat — to take place.

Study data showed:

  • 82 percent of women would be more engaged if they had regular career conversations;
  • 75 percent would be more inclined to stay with their current employer; and
  • 78 percent would share their ideas more freely.

See? That’s what I meant when I said these conversations should be happening regularly whether leadership is the goal or not. Regular sessions with a manager can impact engagement, performance, creativity, discretionary effort and retention.

Right Management offered a video summarizing the data. It also pointed out there is an illusion of progress in this struggle toward gender parity in leadership. Stats showing that women outnumber male college grads in 95 of 144 countries, or that women on boards in European countries have nearly doubled in the past five years are great. But — and this is a big but — the number of senior positions held by women has risen just 3 percent in the past five years, to a whopping 24 percent. *Do you hear crickets chirping right now? You should.*

The sad stat is, 40 percent more women want to have career conversations. So, what’s stopping them? Let’s assume — since they have the power to do something about it — that managers are the barrier. Get it together, y’all. Open that door. Start asking questions. Establish clear performance expectations. Formally recognize contributions. Create a timeline for progress and development complete with formal learning, stretch assignments, mentors, sponsors, accountability, the whole bit.

Of course, women need to be more vocal in career conversations as well — a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the company culture made women feel comfortable discussing career advancement. Too many, I find, are comfortable with women remaining firmly entrenched in their roles as worker bees. So many of us have value because we get things done, and keep things working smoothly — without any power, authority or strategic input. That’s a huge, sexist waste of talent.

Great leadership or career advancement solutions for women don’t have to be elaborate or complex, and they don’t have to be expensive. And please believe I recognize how ironic it is that talking is what it may ultimately take to ensure that women take on the roles so many of us want, and so many of our organizations need filled. But hey. If all it takes to start the ball rolling is a conversation … .

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email editor@workforce.com.