Powerful actions to promote women into leadership roles

What's the most powerful action you've seen to promote women into leadership roles

Organisations frequently talk about addressing the lack of women in senior positions, but does the rhetoric lead to effective solutions?

Libby Lyons

Director of the Workplace, Gender Equality Agency

Libby LyonsSometimes it is the smallest decisions and actions that create the greatest change.

A senior HR executive recently attended a pay equity round table. After learning what others in her industry were doing to address the gender pay gap, she left to make a simple change. 

That very day, the CEO of her organisation had signed off on a letter of offer for a new general manager. The firm had short-listed two people, a man and woman. On merit, they decided the woman was the better candidate and so, after reviewing her salary expectations, put the letter of offer together.

The twist in this story is that the male candidate had asked for a salary that was $100,000 higher and the company was prepared to pay it. Despite this, they offered the woman a salary package that was $100,000 less than what the man expected and the position had budgeted for. 

After learning about unconscious bias, and the negative impact it can have on women’s pay, this executive rewrote the letter and offered the woman the higher salary. 

The incident prompted the senior executive team to re-evaluate their approach to gender equality and pay.

“It can start with one decision by one person on one day.” Libby Lyons

Each day, managers and employees, both male and female, deal with a flurry of different decisions. Helping women into leadership roles, and to achieve equality at work, does not need to wait for a large initiative or commitment. It can start with one decision by one person on one day.

John Lydon

Managing partner of McKinsey Australia & New Zealand and member of Male Champions of Change

John LydonI would love to be able to say that one powerful action has been found to work. But the short answer is that no organisation has yet identified a single action which makes that crucial difference in promoting women into leadership. That’s not surprising: the gap is so big that one action alone – however good – is unlikely to be sufficient to make real progress.

Why? Our experience and research over the years has indicated that organisations need a range of measures, and they must keep their leaders aligned, committed and “all in” to the goal. We’ve found that significant progress can take eight or more years. 

The levers we’ve found to be the most effective are sponsorship, making flexible working options the norm for women and men and providing a holistic gender-neutral parental leave program supporting colleagues when they leave and return to work. 

Although we aren’t making progress as quickly as we would like, we are seeing results. About 20 per cent of McKinsey’s consultants (male and female) have taken advantage of flexible work options and 40 per cent of our last group of elected partners were women.

“No organisation has yet identified a single action which makes that crucial difference in promoting women into leadership.” John Lydon

We are committed to staying the course and listening and learning from others. Being a Male Champion of Change alongside some very committed CEOs has helped a lot. 

Getting there will be worth it – to advance women’s equality in broader society, and because it’s been shown time and again that businesses perform better when they are more diverse.

Related: 16 motivational quotes from leading women in business

Dr Helena Liu

Senior lecturer at UTS, Business School

Dr Helen LiuSeeing women as more than just their gender is the first step toward gender equality in leadership.

We can assemble a flurry of diversity management initiatives, development opportunities, progressive CEOs, quotas and good intentions, and see them fail because we ignored the ideological reality that men remain the leadership norm.

When leaders are by default men, women become treated as special cases. We impose outdated stereotypes that women are, by nature, more caring, gentle and nurturing and then set them up to fail when they inevitably have to make tough calls at the helm of their companies.

Recognising women as more than just their gender does not mean turning a blind eye to sexism at work. Sexism frustrates the ambitions of women at every stage of their lives and careers. Traditional gender roles are taught to our children from the toys they’re given. Gendered assumptions of skills mean girls are less likely to be engaged in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] at school. Bias against female students is woven deep into the cultures of business schools.

By the time women get into organisations, they are accustomed to believing they don’t belong. For women, after all, their socialisation to aspire to leadership is a political act. It’s ideological resistance against the taken-for-granted assumption that leadership belongs to men.

“The most powerful action we can take is to see [women] as full human beings.” Dr Helena Liu

Women don’t need special treatment to be promoted into leadership roles. The most powerful and radical action we can take to support their leadership is to see them as full human beings.

Professional development: Acquire and refine the skills of successful leadership

Libby Lyons
Libby Lyons was appointed as director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in October last year. Prior to joining the agency, Lyons held senior management roles across corporate and government sectors in the energy, resources and telecommunications industries, including BHP Billiton, Alcoa and Telstra. Lyons started her working life as a primary school teacher, so has experience in working in both female- and male-dominated industries.

John Lydon
John Lydon joined McKinsey in 1996 and in 2013 was appointed the managing partner of McKinsey Australia and New Zealand. Lydon also works as a client counsellor with large organisations. He has led several large-scale operational improvement programs across multiple industries. Lydon is part of the Male Champions of Change program, which was launched by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and aims to harness the power of male corporate leaders to promote gender equality in the workplace.

Dr Helena Liu
Dr Helena Liu was awarded her PhD in 2012 from the University of Sydney Business School and joined the UTS Business School in Sydney in early 2016. As a critical leadership scholar, her research is broadly concerned with the ways that power influences leadership. She is currently exploring innovative ways that leadership may be exercised toward equality and social justice.

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June 2016
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