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How to Accelerate Gender Equity in Leadership

Here are four levers of success and four leading indicators to drive progress.

Key points

  • The shifting landscape for advancing women in leadership requires more proactive measurement and planning.
  • Success requires culture, people, systems, and processes, leadership development, and executive action.
  • Early success indicators of engagement, values fit, commitment, and net promoter scores should be measured.
Jennifer McCollum/ CEO of Linkage, Inc
Source: Jennifer McCollum/ CEO of Linkage, Inc

This post is part of my subseries on how organizations can transform leadership development for women, as described through the eyes of experts as well as women’s lived experiences, and where gaps remain. Each of the posts from these subseries is pulled together from interviews. Direct quotes are notated in italics or offset. There was no conflict of interest to disclose with this interview. The author of this post did not receive any financial benefit or compensation for conducting or writing this interview.

In this interview, I explore the changing landscape of the leadership gender equity gap and four organizational levels of success with Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, Inc., a SHRM company, and author of In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO, releasing in November 2023. Linkage is a global leadership development firm focused on creating inclusive cultures and advancing women leaders.

The Changing Landscape and Women’s Hurdles

Jennifer shared that the last five years have shown an accelerated shift in the landscape of efforts to advance women in leadership. Organizations, driven by both business outcomes and a social imperative, are under growing pressure from stakeholders and investors to make faster progress. However, unique hurdles continue to persist for women on their leadership journey. She notes:

“Our fundamental belief is that what it takes to excel as a leader is completely independent of the range of gender. But women specifically face unique hurdles on their path to leadership. As they rise, those hurdles become more and more evident. Women early in their careers might not see the hurdles, but once they are on a track to advance, they really start to feel them."

Factors like external bias and centuries of gender inequity have shaped these challenges. Jennifer explains, “While these hurdles are informed by hundreds of years of gender inequality, we’ve internalized those external biases, and that’s what women can focus on changing.”

Even leadership development programs tailored for women have included gender-biased messages. Jennifer recalls:

“We used to talk even five years ago about branding and presence—how you should show up as a woman at work and ‘fit in.’ That message led many women to cover who they are, their authentic selves, because of this belief that we had to talk, act, and dress like the leadership majority. Luckily, that has changed a lot in the last few years.”

Jennifer emphasized that these are not hurdles that women should tackle alone but rather areas where organizations must play a pivotal role.

Four Organizational Levers for Success

For women to advance into higher leadership roles, Jennifer indicates two lanes of effort are needed. First, women must invest in their own career growth and recognize their value. Second, organizations need to invest in women differently.

Linkage’s framework, published in a white paper entitled “Advancing Women Leaders: Changing the Game for Women in the Workplace,” emphasizes four crucial dimensions organizations must address:

1. Culture: Create an environment where women feel valued and respected. Jennifer explains, “This is about whether women feel their contribution is valued and they belong. Nothing will send a woman faster to the exit door than to feel like they’ve got something to offer, but it’s not welcomed.”

Initiatives like dedicated leadership development programs and executive sponsorship are powerful ways to create an environment where women can thrive. Without this foundation, other efforts may fall short.

2. People, Systems, and Processes: Ensure equal opportunities in areas like recruitment, succession, promotions, and pay. This helps remove barriers that have held back women’s progress. Jennifer asks organizations to investigate their talent systems, such as: “How do we acquire talent and create visibility around open positions to ensure equity? How do we determine promotions? How do we offer access to development or stretch experiences?”

Jennifer recalled one public example:

“We worked directly with the new CEO of an auto parts distributor, who noticed that his leadership team at the top several levels did not reflect their customer base, specifically African American women. So, he made a commitment and an investment to attract, retain, develop, and promote more multicultural women leaders. He invested in leadership development for his executives, who became sponsors of the rising women leaders, as well as development and coaching for the women leaders themselves."

3. Focused Leadership Development: Provide targeted development opportunities that address unique hurdles women face, such as being clear about their career aspirations, being recognized for their work, and negotiating effectively. Addressing skeptics, Jennifer notes:

“We have companies still asking, ‘Why should I invest differentially in women? They already have access to all of our other programs.’ Or, ‘If we invest in the women disproportionately, then the men are going to feel excluded.’ Both of those things may be true, but we really can't talk about the exclusion of men until we get to 50/50 gender parity in leadership. So, this is really about investing in women disproportionately because they face unique hurdles and they don't have access, by and large, to what men have always had access to. So, it’s important for companies to be disciplined in how they offer formal and informal opportunities, like sponsorship, mentorship, allyship, access to stretch assignments, etc.”

4. Executive Action: Create active engagement and commitment by executives. Jennifer warns:

“If executives are not visible and taking real action to support women’s leadership, the programs will not have the intended impact. This cannot be a standalone HR or DEI initiative, with little influence and support from the most senior leaders. Most executives believe they are pretty good at executive sponsorship. But women continue to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Executives have to do more than just tell a woman what they should be doing. Sponsorship is about using your influence to open that door, walk women through the door, and use your voice behind closed doors to support women’s advancement.”

Measuring Future Success: Leading Indicators

Jennifer notes that organizations should not wait until women leave the organization to ask themselves what can be improved. Instead, they can measure four leading indicators to proactively identify problems and reach gender equity goals. Linkage measures the perception of women leaders and offers benchmarking data to four important questions:

1. Engagement: Does this organization make it possible for you to directly contribute to its success?

2. Values Fit: Do the values of this organization fit with your own?

3. Commitment: If you were offered the same or similar role in another company in the next two years, would you take it?

4. Net Promoter: Would you recommend this as a great place to work for women?

She shared that according to their latest Linkage data,

“...The biggest challenge is with women at the Director level, where the Net Promotor score is zero, which means there are an equal number of women saying they would promote their organization as women saying they would not. This data corroborates the 2022 McKinsey & Company findings that ‘for every female director being promoted, two are leaving.’ Companies need to measure these leading indicators because if they don’t, they risk becoming a rotating door for women leaders.”

Looking Forward: Supporting the Next Generation

As we strive for gender equity, Jennifer emphasized the importance of educating and supporting the next generation of leaders to ensure that progress continues, as well as focusing on other underrepresented populations.

Jennifer’s final takeaway was this: “Gender equity can’t be just a buzzword; it’s a critical business imperative, a societal responsibility, and a pathway to a brighter future for all.”

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