Earlier this month in Strasbourg, European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding proposed a new law that would enforce quotas of 40% for women's representation on European corporate boards by 2020. Why did she do it? Because experience suggests that this is the most effective way of substantially increasing the representation of women in top leadership. Many companies have embraced gender diversity initiatives, women's mentoring networks, and leadership development programs with great enthusiasm. But the continuing low level of representation of women in the highest levels of corporate leadership shows that these strategies for facilitating women's entry into managerial career paths and supporting them once there are inadequate.
Now that the EC quota initiative has been blocked, what other pathways to women's advancement should we be focusing on? Organizational solutions must focus both on the development of high-potential women themselves and on systemic and sustainable change to the organization's mindset and processes regarding gender diversity. A number of systemic issues block women's path to the top, and any comprehensive gender diversity and inclusion initiative must take steps to recognize often invisible barriers to women's advancement, to act on the system as a whole, and to promote ownership of solutions by men as well as women.
First, we need to understand what holds women back. Research has found that a number of unintended selection and performance biases disadvantage women on their pathways to top leadership. The closed networks from which board members tend to be recruited make it less likely for qualified women candidates to be identified. Women in leadership face a higher burden of performing well due to their minority status. Aware of the importance of turning in flawless performance, women take fewer risks than men and are less likely to promote themselves, with the result that they appear to lack ambition. Wary of putting women in situations where sub-optimal performance could hurt not only their own career chances but those of other women, even well-meaning superiors are less likely to give them critical developmental assignments. Superiors also often decline to offer critical international assignments to women, assuming without verification that their family demands would make expatriation impossible. While the socio-emotional support from women's mentoring networks is valued and appreciated by women, women are less likely to have powerful career sponsors who actively advocate for them when decisions about developmental assignments and promotions are made.
Progress requires action. The European Business Schools/Women on Boards initiative was launched in September of 2011 as a centerpiece of EC Vice President Reding's efforts to increase gender diversity on boards of directors. This initiative has produced the "Global Board-Ready Women" searchable database, an excellent new resource for corporations seeking candidates to appoint to their boards. The GBRW database, which will be publicly launched on 12/12/12, will be administered by the Financial Times Non-Executive Directors' Club on the LinkedIn social network. The participating European business schools are currently busy populating the searchable database with over 7500 alumnae certified as board-ready.
Within corporations, gender diversity initiatives that are added on to the same old way of doing business cannot have significant impact. Instead, the most successful initiatives are integrated with the organization's core strategy and processes from the top down. The CEO must identify gender equity and diversity as a core strategic priority; in turn, this organizational priority must be translated into operational goals and processes at every level of the organization. Managers must have goals for recruitment and promotion of women in their departments and divisions, and achievement of these goals—including such factors as climate for gender equity and managerial support for women—should be measured and reinforced by the performance management and reward system.
While there is a wealth of research information available to support the business case for gender diversity overall, sustainable change within organizations requires the articulation and demonstration of a company-specific business case. In what ways does your company perform better, innovate more, provide better customer service, identify more exciting market opportunities, promote faster learning, recruit more outstanding talent, and more effectively develop employees as a result of increased gender diversity? In order to answer these questions, one straightforward and powerful practice to implement is highlighting success stories of women leaders and recognizing people in the organization who are helping to drive and sustain the move towards greater gender equity. The more visible, exciting, and dynamic the bandwagon, the more people will want to get on board.