Attitude Adjustment: Making Gender Initiatives Stick

iStock_000007925551XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recently, Marie Claire published an interview with Sallie Krawcheck, one of her first since her ouster last fall from Bank of America, where she was President of Global Wealth and Investment Management.

Krawcheck expressed her dissatisfaction with programs designed to develop women. She said:

“But if you look around Wall Street and corporate America, we’re putting women on diversity councils; we’re putting them in mentoring programs; we’re giving them special leadership training, telling them how to ask for promotions — but we are not promoting them. My goodness, we’re just making women busier. There needs to be a rethink about how to make them successful in these organizations.”

So-called “fix the women” approaches amount to little if companies aren’t willing to address the systemic, cultural reasons keeping women out of top jobs.

It’s about changing attitudes – and that’s much more difficult to manage than setting up networking or development initiatives.

Cultural Issues

Recently McKinsey & Company released the fifth report in its Women Matter series, and this one analyzes the reasons why gender initiatives often break down. McKinsey surveyed 235 companies in Europe to find out how they are approaching gender parity.

Most of the companies were undertaking significant efforts to advance and retain women. Even still, McKinsey says, the percentage of women decreases at every level. So much so, that, at the current pace, women will still account for less than 20% of executive committee roles even a decade from now.

It’s not for a lack of effort – according to the report, 63% of the companies surveyed have at least twenty different gender initiatives in place. Eric Labaye, Director of Global Knowledge and Communications at McKinsey, commented, “Nevertheless, many companies also express frustration that their efforts do not always gain traction. The truth is, putting initiatives in place does not guarantee they will be well executed.”

The study identifies a few reasons that these programs fail to perform. First of all, programs are not always implemented effectively. For example, the report says, “while 69 percent of companies said they had mentoring programs in place for women, only 16 percent said they were well implemented, citing, for example, fast- waning enthusiasm from mentors and mentees alike.”

And commitment to these programs tends to decrease as you get deeper into the company.

“So while 41 percent of companies said their CEOs were fully committed to improving gender diversity, only 25 percent felt the same about senior managers and vice presidents, and 13 percent about middle managers. The closer to the front line, the less support there appears to be for gender diversity initiatives, suggesting companies still have considerable work to do to change attitudes within the organization.”

As Lucy Marcus, professor of leadership and governance at IE Business School in Madrid, recently told the Financial Times, while companies “can throw money at the problem … the dirty secret is that this doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It comes down to the attitude of the company and the way it integrates women into senior management.”

Ernst & Young’s Americas Inclusiveness Officer Karyn Twaronite agreed, “So many programs, even five or 10 years ago, were about fixing the women. Now, the focus is on fixing the environment – making sure that assignments are fair and equitable, and making sure the workplace is inclusive and open.”

How can companies keep the momentum going in order to ensure talented women are overcoming attitudes and environmental barriers to success?

Changing Attitudes

According to McKinsey there are four things a company needs to do to ensure it is getting the most from its efforts to advance and retain women. First of all, top down, visible commitment from the CEO is critical for setting the program up for success.

Second, the report says, the company has to have a good measurement of where the women are (and aren’t) in the company, and what the challenges for advancement are. Next, it has to implement an initiative designed to “influence the mindsets that halt women’s progress.” And finally, it needs to put in place targeted programs to address weak points that are specific to the company itself.

The Financial Times’s Rebecca Knight discussed a specific program by Ernst & Young as an example. The firm noticed that while many women were being suggested for positions, they were still getting passed over for promotion. Because sponsor relationships are key to advancement, the firm designed a 3-year program, in which 30 high performing women were paired up with an executive board member and a coach, so that they could gain access to decision makers.

It seems like the program is working. “Today, 18 per cent of the partners or principals in the company’s Americas division are female, and women hold 21 per cent of leadership roles. In 2004, women held 15 per cent of leadership roles, and only 6 per cent in 1999,” writes Knight.

By addressing both developmental and cultural barriers to advancement, companies can help balance the gender equation within their organizations.