Global Gender Inclusion Is Slow

News Updates

Although organizations have been talking about gender as a critical diversity priority for many years, there has been limited advancement made globally in moving women into leadership roles, said Anita Zanchettin, managing director, global talent strategy for Aperian Global, in an interview with Rajeshwari Sharma, editor of the website for SHRM India, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Zanchettin has more than 25 years of experience providing strategic consulting and training to organizations around the world in the areas of global diversity and inclusion, leadership, teams and business skills. She is co-author of Global Diversity: Winning Customers and Engaging Employees within World Markets (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2006) and has lived in France, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the U.S. She was based in Singapore at the time of this interview.

Despite efforts, women continue to be poorly represented in senior management and leadership roles around the world. What are some reasons for this?

A significant amount of work has been done by corporations, governments and nonprofit agencies to advance women. However, there are challenging systemic issues that still need to be addressed, such as the lack of feedback and informal mentoring provided to women in most organizations. Women face significant obstacles in their current work environments, some of which are complex or subtle. Some examples are:

  • Exclusion from informal networks.
  • Stereotyping and preconceptions about women’s roles and abilities.
  • Lack of leadership commitment and accountability for women’s advancement.
  • Societal pressure on women due to their personal and family responsibilities.

It is important to recognize that these obstacles are interrelated. For example, stereotypes about women can often lead to their exclusion from relationship-building activities such as mentoring and networking. This exclusion can, in turn, impact decisions about high-visibility assignments.

Additionally, the more women are excluded from such assignments and positions, the more likely the stereotypes will persist.

These obstacles should be analyzed not just from a gender standpoint, however, but by looking through the prism of gender, ethnicity, organizations and society. For example, changes in legislation and affirmative action around the world have facilitated women’s careers to some extent, but deeply entrenched cultural values and traditions continue to pose barriers. Thus, the future of women in management will depend partly on how societal attitudes toward women shift over time.

In addition, companies need to go beyond providing flexible hours and support for child care or elder care responsibilities to efforts that help women leverage informal networking platforms and resource groups for career advancement.

When it comes to developing, attracting and retaining female employees, do organizations need different strategies for emerging economies and mature markets?

For the most part, the strategies are similar across mature as well as emerging markets, although there might be infrastructure or cultural issues unique to specific markets. For instance, a good practice used by global organizations based in India is to provide safe transportation home for women who are staying late at work to take calls across time zones.

In my experience, companies need to be more mindful of societal issues and play a proactive role in creating an environment that develops women employees and advances their careers. For example, if women face pressure from their families or society related to their work, then even the best flexible work and child care programs in the world will not be utilized.

One of the best strategies I have seen for advancing women in global organizations is the availability and support of networks for women. It is essential for women to get support and advice from other women as they move forward in their careers, especially if women are not getting support from their families or society.

What is your advice to organizations and HR practitioners struggling to retain female employees, especially at the mid-management level and above?

Take a proactive and systemic approach to developing women in leadership roles. Go beyond one-time-only events or speeches and look for opportunities to embed a focus on women in leadership into the day-to-day operations of your organization.

Talk to women in your organization to identify supports and barriers they find as they move up in the organization. Be ready to address subtle and challenging issues they identify, such as limited feedback and informal mentoring for women.

Pay attention to the impact of national culture, and cultures within cultures, on the development of women as leaders, especially in global organizations. Often, the model of a successful leader is tied to the cultural values of headquarters which might not match the cultural norms of women in global locations.

HR can play a critical role in raising awareness of the impact of culture on leadership development and can develop strategies to enhance the leadership skills of women globally.

In addition to focusing on the inclusion of women, what are some other diversity trends to note for 2012?

  • Inclusive leadership. We are definitely going to see increased conversation around competencies needed to manage a diverse workforce and a greater focus on leadership skills linked to diversity and inclusion. The primary tenets of an “inclusive leadership” approach include being aware of one’s own cultural values and beliefs, perceiving how others behave according to their own cultural values, and leveraging differences and bridging gaps in thought and behavior to improve performance. CEO and C-suite engagement is critical for a diversity effort to succeed, and we are going to see greater contributions by leaders to the vision, mission and strategy of the strategic diversity management plan. In addition, more senior leaders will demonstrate their commitment to diversity by attending diversity events, sponsoring and advocating for employee networking groups and dedicating resources to diversity and inclusion.
  • Multigenerational diversity. Another broad trend includes managing a multigenerational workforce. A lot of companies will be focusing on attraction, engagement and retention measures for several generations of employees in the workplace.
  • Mentoring up. Mentoring is often seen as a top-down activity based on an experienced person sharing knowledge and tips with less experienced employees. “Mentoring up” means that employees provide insights to those with more experience as well, so the mentoring relationship becomes reciprocal. Mentoring up is particularly beneficial for women, who can share insights with senior level men in an organization about the ever-changing realities women in the organization face. When such sharing occurs, we often find that men become champions for women in leadership in a more authentic way.

Rajeshwari Sharma is editor, SHRM India.