Ask Deborah: How Can My Company “Change the Headline” for Women in Leadership?

February 4, 2015Our President & Chief Executive Officer Deborah Gillis is the fourth President in Catalyst’s 52-year history, the first from outside of the United States, and the first internal successor to the office. Deborah ascended from COO to CEO of Catalyst in January 2014. In this month’s Ask Deborah, a column we created to help readers get to know her better, we posed a reader’s question about holding senior leaders accountable for making real change in the year ahead.

Click here to read the last column in this series! And please send questions for Deborah to [email protected]—your question could be featured on our blog!

The company I work for thinks it’s doing a great job of advancing women, but I know we could be doing more. How can we get our senior leaders to take responsibility for “changing the headline” around women in leadership—and what can I do to help? 

First of all, let me say that I sympathize! We’ve been talking about women in leadership for the last 50 years, and the daily reality for most working women simply doesn’t match the rhetoric.

The good news is that many of today’s leaders have the best of intentions—and many companies have a strong, stated commitment to gender equality and an interest in doing the right things. They just don’t always know what is the best approach.

You can start by asking new questions. The evidence is in: having more women in leadership is good for business. Instead of, “What can women do to get ahead at work?” why not start asking, “What are we doing to make it possible for women to succeed in this organization?”

Some companies have mechanisms in place for identifying high-potential women and providing them with development opportunities. This is a step in the right direction. But simply implementing a generic women’s leadership program isn’t enough. Intentional leaders ask themselves: which jobs really matter at this company—and how can we make sure women are getting them?

Our research shows that men advance faster than women in part because they’re assigned projects with bigger budgets, more direct reports, and greater exposure to senior executives. Women need the same access men have to the “hot jobs” that can fast-track their careers (those with higher visibility and more mission-critical responsibilities). They also need the support of senior leaders—which leads to my next point.

Women at many companies are mentored, but it’s critical to determine whether they’re being sponsored as well. Men and women alike have mentors, but men are far more likely to benefit from the support of sponsors, which they’re likelier than women to have. The difference is this: a mentor talks to you, sharing knowledge and advice, while a sponsor talks about you, advocating for you to be given higher-level opportunities and assignments.

Sponsorship is crucial at every stage because employees with sponsors are likelier to gain access to hot jobs—and the more senior their sponsor is, the faster they’re likely to advance. Because more men occupy senior positions, they must be encouraged to sponsor talented women as well as men.

Try emphasizing that paying it forward pays back—and can lead to professional advancement and compensation growth for both middle and senior managers and the junior staffers they sponsor.

Research shows that gender gaps appear early and widen over time: men with MBAs are hired at higher levels right out of school and earn, on average, $4,600 more per year in their first post-MBA jobs than their female counterparts. Companies must ensure that women are given opportunities early in their careers to gain experience in operational, strategic, and P&L roles.

Practice inclusive leadership. This is something you can do regardless of your title or role. Leadership means more than being the person who tells everyone else what to do. It’s about showing others what’s possible and inspiring them to get there. Inclusive leaders listen and collaborate as often as they issue orders. They encourage those around them to live up to their potential—and they see potential in everyone.

Intentional leadership is another key to change. Women need leaders who do more than talk about progress. They need leaders who set measurable goals and hold themselves and others accountable for meeting them—visionaries who push for profound change rather than settling for incremental improvement.

Many companies are preoccupied with counting how many women or minorities they have on staff. It’s important to track these statistics, but just keeping track is not enough. In today’s global marketplace, diversity is critical—but it’s even more powerful when paired with a truly inclusive workplace in which all talent can thrive. Only by asking the right questions can you reveal a clear picture of your talent pool, and spark some deeper insights into your organization’s approach to drawing talent from a variety of backgrounds. Our Vital Signs toolkit can help you evaluate these strategies with fresh eyes.

The future belongs to organizations with intentional, inclusive leaders and bold programs with measurable results—and to those individuals who go out and change the world, rather than waiting for the world to change around them.

I strongly believe that by working together, companies and individuals can make a profound impact. All it takes is a willingness to identify what isn’t working for the people in your organization, and a serious commitment to figuring out what will.

Best of luck—and let me know how it goes!



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.