Building an Empowered Female Workforce: Key Issues

We are now in ‘The Human Age’, in which unleashing human potential is the real key to business growth. However, many organisations are still failing to capitalise on their people talent. This is particularly true for female employees at leadership level: a recent article in the New York Times showed that fewer women run big companies than men named John!

To tackle the debate around Women in Leadership, we recently partnered with Barclays and KPMG to hold an event that led a thought-provoking discussion around the strategies, career opportunities and cultural eco systems that can let businesses benefit from an empowered female workforce.

Here some of the key take-away points from our panel of speakers; Mara Swan, Melanie Richards and Mark McLane.

Change won’t happen if companies rely on diversity programmes

It’s time for organisations to move beyond dialogue and getting caught in the ‘programme trap’ of ticking boxes around having women in leadership roles. It’s positive to implement programmes that will help move women into leadership positions, but organisations need to focus on results and the type of activity that will help them to feel empowered in their roles. For example, coaching is a great development tool and can be an invaluable, confidential sounding board for women to review their career and to talk about barriers and potential next steps.

Don’t try to fix women, fix the culture

Too many organisations think they need to focus on ‘fixing women’, by giving them the skills and habits that are largely associated with men. Instead, we should focus on fixing our own business cultures. This was a key theme in the research, When Women Lead, Business Do Better, where company culture was identified as the principal barrier in women’s progression to a senior leadership role. Established organisations should look to women-owned businesses for inspiration on how to build firms that women aspire to lead and to create a culture where women feel they are valued and are taken seriously.

We need more female role models

It has been said that we don’t have enough female role models. Our panel of speakers suggested that we do. There are plenty of women in leadership roles all through a business’ organisational structure – the trick is to help them embrace the responsibility of being a role model to other women. Echoing this, our research illustrated a clear need to highlight successful businesswomen, but not to present them as heroes that faced no challenges and achieved everything alone. Instead, there needs to be a mix of ‘role models’ to aspire to and ‘real models’ to relate to. These should be identified at every level of the organisation to ensure the goal is reachable and businesses must encourage women to be open about the challenges they have overcome and the support they received to do so.

Remember it’s not a HR issue

Making sure there is a pipeline of women to step into leadership roles is not an HR issue, it’s a leadership issue. It can be a real driver of business performance. As such, it needs to be seen as a business issue with both business and social implications. Senior leadership should capitalise on opportunities to create diversity within their teams, projects or assignments, not as a ‘nice thing to have’ but as a vital strategic step to. In particular, it was argued that managing directors, with their unique ability to influence, have a core responsibility to drive positive change and create more inclusive working environments.

There is no ‘quick-fix’ to the various barriers that prevent many women from achieving their full potential, but our speakers, drawing on decades of experience and passion for achieving gender equality, were all happy to share their thoughts on getting there. For the latest thoughts and insights on Women in Leadership, as well as other Career issues, please visit our Careers Hub.