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Women at the top: 10 tips towards a diverse pipeline

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Women make up nearly 50 per cent of the labour market, but as you move up organisations the number of women decreases. Even among leading employers who are publically committed to promoting women’s advancement, women’s workforce participation reduces from 54 per cent at non-managerial levels to 29 per cent at senior management levels. 

Since the Lord Davies report, UK employers have approached the issue of diversifying our boardrooms with renewed vigour. Yet, we know that the pipeline of UK talent still suffers from gendered leaks.

This is not about men versus women; it’s about equality of opportunity, about creating a true meritocracy – not a mirage of one – and retaining the best talent for a business. There is no magic bullet to achieving a diverse pipeline; it requires organisational change at every level, from the top right down to the most junior levels.

Here are ten steps towards making this happen that are accessible for everyone at all levels – from CEOs, board members, non-executive directors to recruiters, HR experts, and line managers to employees.

1. Meaningful measurement: evidence-led learning

Although these steps aren’t in sequential order, an essential first step is to unpick your workforce’s metrics and understand the current situation. What are the numbers telling you? Look closely at the areas of recruitment and selection, the gender balance by level and function, promotion rates and appraisal scores, staff turnover, pay and reward. Only then can you identify the sticky areas you need to address using the next steps.

2. Accountability: owning the speed of change

Make the executive team accountable for progress. Boards should set ambitious but achievable targets for increasing gender diversity that are communicated to all business areas, with named board members taking responsibility for delivery. To ensure the organisation’s goals become a reality, share this accountability with lower-levels of management by integrating specific targets into performance objectives.

3. Inclusive leadership: motivation from the top

Do you have inclusive leaders that embrace, encourage and tap into the creativity that comes about in non-homogenous groups? These leaders motivate teams, improve performance and productivity and are inspiring role models for all employees. There are ten simple questions that will help identify who has the qualities of an inclusive leader.

4. Inclusive cultures: from fair to empowering

From meeting times, internal communications to management behaviours, the smallest nuances can create a culture that enhances innovation and engagement, or one that does not. Regularly gauge employee engagement to ascertain the current organisational culture and its impact on staff. Act upon this feedback to work towards a more inclusive culture. If one dominant group is succeeding and thriving at the expense of others, engage these individuals as part of the solution to ensure their buy-in for change.

5. Identifying talent: what does your future workforce look like?

Unconscious bias often leads to mirror-imaging in appointment and promotions processes. Use the data from step one to identify, for example, where more men are put forward for an appraisal or promotion. Then honestly evaluate why this is happening. Roll out effective unconscious bias training to all staff involved in assessing employee talent, awakening knowledge of their own potential preconceptions – and use your data to bring this training to life.

6. Appraisal to promotion: right people, right time

Closely monitor all promotions and appraisal mechanisms through a gender lens. Apply transparent processes, inclusive assessment methods and gender-balanced interviewing teams (particularly for senior promotion panels).

7. Embedding agility, flexibility with impact

Flexible working is widely known for reducing overheads, sick days and attrition – and being a key enabler for women in the labour market. Most jobs can be designed outside of traditional working patterns. Identify where this is possible in your team(s) and encourage all employees to participate – not just working mothers, or it risks becoming a new form of segregation. Vital to the success of flexible working is a focus on performance, not “presenteeism”, and training all managers in how to manage a remote or agile workforce.

8. Interventions with impact: coaching, mentoring and sponsorship

These three development opportunities are hugely effective means of overcoming unequal advancement in the workplace, as are reverse mentoring and co-coaching. A logical place to start in choosing which intervention and where and whom to offer it to are the “sticky areas” identified in step one. Always set clear objectives and timescales with mutually agreed outcomes by all parties. Evaluate and analyse short and long-term impact to improve future programmes.

9. One size fits few: normalising non-linear career paths

Gone are the days when a job was for life. Employees are more likely to move between roles, employers, industries, and in and out of the labour market altogether. Revisit any perceived “pre-requisites” for advancement, particularly those that inadvertently filter out disproportionate numbers of women, such as international placements or previous boardroom experience, to harness the experience gained in different environments.

10. Beyond his and hers: occupational integration

Even within organisations with a balanced workforce, vertical and horizontal segregation will be present. An example of vertical segregation is in the retail sector, where women make up the majority of entry-level positions but a small minority of executive roles. Horizontal segregation occurs across all sectors. For example, the clustering of women into HR roles and men into IT roles. This all contributes to the UK’s continued gender pay gap. Encourage current and future female employees into non-traditional areas, with cross-departmental job-shadowing and partnerships with education institutions to bust myths about these career paths.

These ten steps don’t require a business to implement an entirely new infrastructure; it is, essentially, the embedding of a “gender lens” into organisational culture and processes.

Helen Wells is the director of Opportunity Now, the gender equality campaign from Business in the Community.

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