What Are We Doing Wrong When It Comes to Promoting Women?
Most of our clients come to Borderless with a genuine desire to build diverse and diversity-capable leadership teams. That is, after all, our expertise. And at the top of
Women in leadership
With women representing more than 50% of the world’s population and a rapidly growing percentage of the most highly educated portion of the world’s employable talent, this focus is not a surprise. Companies paying attention are increasingly aware that creating a work environment where women leaders can advance, contribute and succeed is a vital competitive business advantage.
Nonetheless, despite often well-intentioned initiatives on women and their careers, many companies still fall short of their goals to promote and retain women in leadership positions and struggle to understand why. As you would imagine, the answer to this question is as varied as both the many women who are offered these opportunities and the environments in which such an offer is made.
Despite the complexities and the lack of quick-fix answers, there is value in raising awareness around some of the more common issues that we see plaguing the advancement of talented women. In this spirit, we urge you to think about, ponder and explore these issues in the context of your own working environments.
Treat women as individuals
First of all, treat your promotable (female) executives as individuals. We will start with an issue that should be readily apparent but often is not (even to women themselves). Women represent more than 50% of the world’s population. They are not a minority and they are as diverse as people can be. As a result, their reasons for accepting and/or rejecting a promotional opportunity must always be negotiated and assessed individually.
This does not mean that women will not have some shared experiences, especially as it relates to their treatment within a given working environment. Such experiences, however, will not be because they are a homogenous group, but because the work environment may treat them as they are. As such, if you are having problems promoting women, take a hard look at your working environment. The common threads preventing success are more likely to be in your work culture and environment than in the women themselves.
Moreover, do not confuse professional women’s issues as always being synonymous with working parent or caregiver issues. Twenty percent of professional women will not be a parent or caregiver. However, if the woman you are promoting is a parent or caregiver, working moms do share many issues and challenges that need to be considered. But these issues are also quite relevant for all parents. In fact, these issues will be increasingly important to the younger generation of workers, both male, and female, as parenting preferences and traditional gender roles continue to erode.
Secondly, signal a willingness to design terms, conditions and benefits for success. Within the context of any executive promotion negotiation, the terms and conditions should be designed to enable the candidate to succeed in the role. A standard package that has been designed for a traditional candidate may or may not be relevantly configured for your female candidate. For example, a woman who is a working parent and whose spouse also has an executive position, covering (and paying for) caregiving and/or balancing or reducing travel requirements may be significant threshold issues to address before the candidate will commit to the demands of the new role.
Accordingly, to prevent women from just turning down positions as a result of these nontraditional considerations, it is important for companies to signal their willingness and commitment to have discussions about them in good faith and without future adverse impact. This can be communicated in a variety of ways. For example, at the time the promotion offer is made, you can simply ask the candidate what she would need to be successful in the role and express your willingness to address and explore individual needs that may require adjustments.
You can also word a job description in such a way that it invites alternative discussions on terms and conditions. For example, instead of saying “50% travel required,” you could say “Extensive travel may be required, but terms of travel to meet global demands can be explored further.” Women are much less likely to self-disqualify if terms invite such
openness to discussion. When invited to do so, we have seen female candidates have excellent alternative ideas for managing effectively.
Finally, when negotiating terms, women should not be unfairly burdened with the fear that they are creating a precedent for all women unless such precedent considerations would also have been applicable to negotiations with male candidates.
Give them time
Thirdly, give your female candidates more time and support to consider a promotion offer. If a woman is being offered a promotion into an executive team that is (and has been) male-dominated and quite traditional, the task before her is daunting. She is not just considering accepting a new job with greater responsibilities, which on its own is a big decision. She is also often assessing her ability to be successful in doing so in an environment that is not designed for her, where there is little or no natural/social
support, and where there are often unfairly high-performance expectations and no room for error.
Constantly proving yourself in such an environment is an exhausting undertaking and can also be quite lonely. (Notably, the same is true for any candidate that will find
themselves in a minority situation within the executive team). A woman may also have non-traditional personal and family obligations to consider. For many, work and family life may currently be in a perfect, but quite fragile, balance with many ‘moving parts’ to consider. In such a circumstance, many women’s first instincts
are to refuse such a promotion, especially if their perception of the new role is a misguided assumption that it will be more work being piled on them.
The reality is that executive promotions for women can often move them into a role where they will have much more control over how they work. It is the role just before
that promotion that is often the worst in terms of workload and lack of control. This aspect of the promotion is often not fully appreciated or explored.
In such circumstances, it can be extremely helpful to use the services of a third-party consultant during deliberations and negotiations. Women considering promotions often need a safe place to voice their concerns, explore their needs and express their insecurities without undermining their executive voice and closely guarded credibility.
At Borderless, we even recognized this as a need in our normal search and placement process, especially for female or minority hires, where they are placed into an environment where natural and social support may be lacking. In fact, we designed our Borderless100Days program with these challenges in mind, which allows us to provide continuing support for any placement during the first 100Days in a candidate’s new role.
Our BorderlessWIN services (Women in Negotiation) enables us to provide such third party support on a consulting basis for internal offers and promotion. The services are designed to increase the rate and success of our clients’ internal efforts to promote and support their high performing women into leadership roles. As you might have guessed,
such services will need to be customized for each individual circumstance.
About the author: Rosalie Harrison is a Partner at Borderless Executive Search. Borderless finds and attracts senior-level executives for multinational companies in the Life Sciences, Chemicals, and Converting, and Food Processing sectors. The firm identifies leaders for Board positions, as well as for senior management, finance, human resources, administration, marketing and sales, operations, logistics, R&D and specialist roles.