How can organizations create inclusive cultures for women to lead?

It’s a viewpoint we often hear. “Inclusion of women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business” – with the persuasive emphasis on the latter part of the phrase. But at a recent program for global leaders across an organization, one participant shared her disappointment that colleagues seemed to need a business case before they would put gender inclusion on the leadership table. “Why should I be treated differently because I’m a woman?” she asked – “Yet the reality is, on a daily basis, I am.” After she spoke, many other women chose to share their experiences of regular gender exclusion.

Silence followed many of the courageous contributions. The shock was palpable. These weren’t stories from many years ago, or from when these women had started their careers, in what could be dismissed as a different world of work. These were stories from the last year, even the last week. There were stories of bias, harassment and discrimination, and of microaggressions – of being the only person not introduced in a meeting; being left out socially, which led to exclusion from decision-making; being constantly spoken over; of ‘mansplaining.’ And these were accounts from the most senior women in the business. One could only imagine the stories from women in the organization without any positional power.

The good thing about this program was the fact that it was happening. It was a safe and challenging learning and development opportunity for all leaders across the organization, focusing on how they could build a culture of inclusion. There are many reasons why we need such initiatives – but they are only part of the approach needed to create inclusive cultures for organizations where women can thrive.

Here, we look at the current state of gender parity and inclusion around the world, and then explore strategies for all leaders to be part of driving more inclusive cultures where women can thrive and lead.

The state of play

At a national level, there is a clear case for increasing female representation in the workforce: simply put, female employment growth is positively associated with GDP growth. Yet despite the rational case for change, we are a long way off gender parity. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, covering 153 countries, found that only 55% of women aged 15-64 are engaged in the labor market, compared to 78% of men. The report found that at the current pace, gender parity is about 50-150 years away. (There are global variations: 54 years in Western Europe, for example, compared to 151 years in North America). In terms of economic participation, the gender gap will take 257 years to close. This is compared to 202 years in the 2019 report, showing the strong negative impact of the pandemic on women, through phenomena such as the ‘shecession’ – the term coined by C Nicole Mason to describe a downturn where job and income losses affect women more than men. To date, the pandemic has pushed women in Europe out of the workforce at a rate 1.8 times that of men. In the US, around 80% of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce over the past year are women.

At an organizational level, the benefits of greater inclusion for women are equally clear. A Peterson Institute study of 22,000 firms across 91 countries found that bringing more women into management boosts profitability. The difference between having no women in corporate leadership (the chief executive, the board and other chief executive-level positions) and having a 30% female share was associated with an increase in net margin, translating to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm (Noland, Moran and Kotschwar, 2016). McKinsey research into 1,000 companies across 12 countries reported that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely than other firms to report above-average profitability (Hunt et al, 2018). A Credit Suisse Research Institute study among 400 companies found that where women made up at least 15% of senior managers, firms had profitability more than 50% higher than those where fewer than 10% of senior managers were women. Even small changes in representation can deliver significant results. Yet in the majority of countries around the world, women account for under 30% of listed companies’ board members: according to the World Economic Forum, only France, Iceland and Norway have more than 40%.

Around the world, representation figures are not high enough. What’s more, representation alone isn’t sufficient if workplaces aren’t inclusive for women. Research suggests that many women leave their workplace not because they “don’t enjoy it” or for “family reasons” (common misconceptions) – but largely because of “workplace conditions,” a “sense of feeling their career had stalled,” or “undermining behavior from their manager.” A survey of over 4,000 women on LinkedIn found the number one reason women leave their companies was “concern for the lack of advancement opportunity,” followed by their “dissatisfaction with senior leadership” and their “dissatisfaction with the work environment/culture.”

Creating inclusive cultures: what can we do?

Many of my clients have established excellent 2030 goals for equality, but as all leaders know, goals alone do not bring change. We need clear leadership strategies, monitoring of progress and proactive culture change for gender inclusion. To get the benefits from diversity, women need a seat at the table, a voice at the table, and influence at the table. This means tackling culture, microaggressions, and subconscious bias.

There are several practical ways to drive a culture of inclusion. While we focus here on inclusion for women, the conversations needed for creating truly inclusive cultures are much more widespread. Some of the approaches will support inclusion more broadly, but in other cases, new conversations and distinct strategies will be needed. So what can we do?

Firstly, we can push leaders across the organization to understand that culture is their responsibility and equip them to shift it. Too often, ‘culture’ officially sits in the HR/people part of the business, yet HR has little control over culture by itself (see my article ‘HR can’t change company culture by itself,’ Harvard Business Review, 2016). Culture is the responsibility of leaders across the organization – they hold the authority or power, they reward behavior, they provide the incentives. Leaders are increasingly being held to account for the culture of their organizations, by stakeholders throughout society and by employees who ‘vote with their feet.’ No team or organization is fixed – culture change can and should happen, and it is largely leaders who shape culture. We need leaders to examine their culture, own it and to equip them to drive positive change.

Next, we can commit to getting good data on levels of representation and experiences of inclusion/exclusion. This should enable analysis at all levels of the organization and across different roles. Data itself, however, is not enough. It needs to be monitored: ask, “Who has responsibility for this in the organization?” It needs to be transparent and shared across the organization. There needs to be accountability too, with leaders held accountable for driving positive change in their spheres of responsibility and influence.

We can be aware of intersectionality. Women experience discrimination and exclusion in different ways. Race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, educational and socio-economic background are just some of the ways in which women can experience an intersectionality of discrimination and exclusion. While there are some similarities and consistencies that we can learn from, all women are unique. No two journeys, goals or experiences are the same. Women are adversely and enduringly positioned at the intersection of various forms of exclusion and discrimination. So let’s be aware of intersectionality, choose not to make assumptions, own the need to learn more and reflect on our own privilege. Seek to understand how intersectionality impacts the experiences of women we interact with – and seek to be an ally.

We can create leadership development opportunities and experiences to equip leaders to foster inclusive cultures. Many organizations now have ‘women in leadership’ programs, coaching, mentoring and development opportunities to equip women for leadership roles. These should not be confused with the development needed to equip all leaders to tackle bias, challenge microaggressions and build inclusive cultures. Women cannot be the sole drivers of cultural change, especially with a minority in executive roles; nor should they be expected to be.

We can all choose to adopt a learning mindset and approach. When it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion we can fear “getting it wrong” – and the fear of saying the wrong thing can stop people from saying anything and from engaging at all. This can come from a position of fragility, with discomfort or defensiveness when confronted by information about inequality and injustice. A learning approach means that we acknowledge we don’t know it all, we won’t always get it right, but we’re committed to increasing understanding to be part of driving positive change. It acknowledges that we all have unconscious biases that influence our assumptions, trust and decision-making. Asking open questions, from a place of genuine interest and a desire to better understand, is powerful.

If we’re not hearing stories from women about exclusion it may simply mean that we’re not asking the right questions or creating meaningful space to hear them. Mostly we need to choose to actively listen, without an agenda. Sometimes when we jump in quickly – for instance, to share similar experiences with the goal of showing empathy – we can shut down the person who is sharing, or send an unintentional message that their situation is not unique and therefore not particularly valuable. Let’s choose a learning mindset and actively listen.

We can be sponsors, not just mentors. Workplace mentoring for women has become common and it can be powerful. However, there are some huge inequalities. In many environments, men typically receive not just mentorship but also sponsorship – a broader advocacy and support for that individual and their career progression. Rather than just asking, “How are you feeling? How are you doing?” and sharing your experiences and advice, choose to be a sponsor. Ask a woman where she wants to go in her career and act on it: make connections for her, remove obstacles, highlight her accomplishments and recommend her.

We can all choose to be an ally, which means taking on the interests and goals of others. Allyship is more than demonstrating empathy, necessary as that is. It requires us to be strategic and intentional, for example in driving systemic change towards more inclusive cultures – not just in processes and policies, but also behaviors. Being a leader means driving positive change. It means knowing that a culture of silence isn’t okay and choosing not to accept silence – the silences that not only cover up offenses against women, but which consist of failing to speak up when sexism and microaggressions happen. Saying “Hey, that’s not okay” can be uncomfortable. But women need allies, genuine partners in progress and change.

Courage and resolve

Good leadership has always required courage and resolve. Choosing to a be a leader who drives meaningful behavioral change and creates a culture of inclusion will require bravery, intention and a commitment to learning. Leadership is not just about getting business results (which inclusion does bring).

We can’t just keep going at the current pace and wait 150 years for gender parity. Every day, we see how leaders can accelerate change, and we have a moral, social and organizational responsibility to bring rapid change in this area. It’s time to flip the focus. Inclusion of women isn’t just good for business; it’s simply the right thing to do.