How Top Companies are Tackling Second-Generation Gender Bias and Closing the Gender Gap in Leadership

iStock_000006492382XSmallBy Mai Browne

The past two decades have seen notable progress for women in corporate America, as most forms of overt gender discrimination have been eliminated and many companies have invested in women’s advancement initiatives and organizational change programs. So why is it that the dial has barely moved for women at the highest ranks of business?

Last year’s “Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners” report by Catalyst revealed that women held only 16.6 percent of corporate board seats in 2012—the seventh straight year of no growth. It was also reported that women held 14.3 percent of executive officer positions for the third year in a row.

The gender gap in leadership is a major concern, not only for women who aspire to leadership, but also for companies that need strong, diverse leadership teams to help them compete successfully in a marketplace that is increasingly female, global, and volatile.

Why does the gender gap in leadership persist? The answer is complicated, but one piece of the puzzle is second-generation gender bias. This is quite different from first-generation gender bias, which is characterized by intentional acts of bias. Second-generation gender bias was examined in the recent Harvard Business Review article “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” written by Robin Ely, Herminia Ibarra, and Deborah Kolb. The authors describe second-generation bias as “cultural assumptions and organizational structures and practices that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.” These dynamics can go far in shaping formal systems, including promotion practices and compensation practices.

Double Binds
Second-generation gender bias reveals itself when women leaders find themselves in “double binds” because many characteristics associated with leadership are linked with masculinity. Words like “strong,” “assertive,” and “decisive,” the authors write, tend to engender confidence from colleagues when these attributes are associated with men. Women who display these attributes, however, are often seen as unlikeable or bossy. It should come as no surprise that the workplace prefers women to be empathetic, caretaking, and unselfish, yet women who demonstrate these “nice” qualities are liked and not respected. They are regarded as too soft to be a strong leader. It’s a no-win situation.

Another example of this particular form of bias is women’s lack of access to influential networks and sponsors. As we well know, informal networks are crucial for aspiring leaders, but as the authors note, “the differences in men’s and women’s organizational positions, and the tendency for each to network with others of the same gender, leads to women building weaker networks than men — and having less access to mentors and sponsors who have the ability to help them get promoted.”

Breaking Down the Barriers of Bias
In their drive to close the gender gap in leadership, a growing number of the world’s leading companies are trying to break the barriers erected by second-generation gender bias.

When female representation in the partnership ceased to budge, audit partner at global accounting firm Grant Thornton, Stella Shanovich, said the firm had to change its approach.

“By 2012, female representation in the partnership had been hovering at about 16 percent for a few years,” Shanovich, said. To push past this threshold, the firm “had to be more intentional and purposeful in our approach.”

CEO Stephen Chipman decided to apply greater scrutiny to the partner nomination process, working directly with the national managing partner of Diversity and Inclusion and her team to be more rigorous about identifying high-performing women senior managers, and monitoring their development and progress by region. The payoff: in two years, the percentage of women in the partnership notched up to its current level of 18 percent.

“Female representation will continue to increase because we now have a better process in place for advancing top female talent,” Shanovich said. “Some describe this process as ‘getting the right people on the bus,’ but it’s really about getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”

In other words, it is meticulous and focused work. Nevertheless, the firm is committed to building a next-generation leadership team that’s strong and diverse. Shanovich says she “looks forward to reporting significant progress in the next few years.”

At KPMG, which also focuses on ensuring diverse slates of candidates for partnership, leadership development is approached from a “long-term perspective,” says Kathy Hannan, National Managing Partner of Diversity and Corporate Responsibility. “To make sure female representation in senior leadership is sustainable, we must identify and develop talented women with leadership potential throughout the continuum, including the earlier stages of their careers.”

Creating a Robust Sponsorship Program
A growing number of influential organizations, including Grant Thornton, KPMG, and Crowell & Moring, maintain formal sponsorship programs. These initiatives are designed to connect high-performing women with people in positions of power at their organizations who will actively support and promote them.

KPMG’s Leaders Engaging Leaders initiative pairs members of its board and management committee with high-performing female and diverse partners, with the goal of developing them for client and operational leadership positions. Grant Thornton’s Advancement of Women sponsorship program, launched in 2011, provides high-talent female senior managers with an advocate at the senior partner level who can help them navigate the path to partnership. Thus far, 50 percent of the first program class has been promoted to partner or managing director.

In a recent Washington Post article on corporate sponsorship programs, Crowell & Moring chair Kent Gardiner explained the rationale for the firm’s sponsorship initiative.

“Law firms tend to be very white, very male, and [tend to stick with the same] demographic in terms of moving power and authority down to other people,” Gardiner said. “So the idea that you’ve brought in a class that’s more than half women lawyers doesn’t mean that half the organization is going to be led by women in any reasonable time in the future.”

According to Gardiner, Crowell & Moring’s sponsorship program has been a vehicle for “prying open” the firm’s “old boys” network, which in turn makes it effective at helping women combat second-generation gender bias.

Lead from the Top
Active leadership and engagement from the c-suite is critical.

“The people at the top echelons of an organization are the only ones with the power to move the needle,” Shanovich said.

At Grant Thornton, Chipman is front and center, as were his predecessors. Their championship enabled the firm’s women’s initiative – Women at Grant Thornton – to triple the percentage of female partners in less than a decade.

“Change happens when you have someone at the top who provides authentic leadership, along with a bold vision and strategy that are clear and easy to articulate,” Hannan said.

At KPMG, CEO John Veihmeyer’s visible support for KPMG’s Network of Women (KNOW) and Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) signals to leadership that women’s advancement is a high-priority business strategy. Since the start of KNOW and WAB in 2003, the percentage of female senior managers/directors increased 19 percent, the number of female partners increased 66 percent, and the percentage of women on the KPMG board of directors increased from 6 percent in 2003 to the 25 percent it’s at today.

Creating a Safe Place
People who are at, or near, the top rungs of business face much scrutiny, which can have an inhibiting effect on those whose manner is regarded as unconventional. Thus, providing high-talent women with a safe environment for coaching, experimentation, and discussing double binds, communication style, and other knotty issues is critical to developing their identities as leaders.

Shanovich coaches Grant Thornton managers on a host of skills, including executive presence, and says that some aspiring leaders are “concerned about their unique communication styles.”

“We don’t want our professionals to think that they can advance only if they act like the people at the senior levels,” Shanovich said.

The reason why second-generation gender bias is so insidious is because it isn’t as overt as the kind of discrimination women experienced in the past. Its effects are more subtle, but when you look at the lack of female representation at the highest levels, second-generation gender bias’ impact is apparent.

If companies take the advice of firms like Grant Thornton, KPMG, and Crowell & Moring, who have managed to move the dial by being more intentional in their approach, creating robust sponsorship programs, leading from the top, and creating safe places, the odds for real change in the next 10 years will be so much greater.

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