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Accelerating Women’s Progress: Breaking Bias and Building Inclusive Workplaces

March 2022

During Women’s History Month, and especially on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also is a time to assess women’s progress and renew commitments to accelerating gender parity.

Women have made strides in corporate leadership and boardrooms, yet there is still work to do to achieve parity. Our research into the gender diversity of boards reflects the mixed progress. While women represent 46 percent and 45 percent, respectively, of large public company board directors in France and Norway, female representation on boards is much lower in the majority of the 17 countries we tracked in 2021. Fewer than 10 percent of CEO public company roles are held by women in all but two of those countries, and it’s a similar story for board chairs. Other research looking at U.S. companies finds that women hold only 21 percent of C-suite roles and 28 percent of senior vice president positions. Investors and other stakeholders continue to pressure companies to make progress on gender diversity.

An important question for the future is how the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Great Resignation” will affect female representation in leadership going forward. Women have left jobs in greater numbers than men in some countries during the past couple years. Surveys have found that women left jobs for a variety of reasons: school closures, the loss of childcare or its cost, lack of flexibility, burnout or to increase pay and enhance career opportunities.

The pandemic not only has increased demands at home, but also increased the complexity and demands at work for many, be it in supply chain, human resources or general P&L roles. In a poll of Spencer Stuart LinkedIn followers (women and men), 37 percent said they or someone they know left a job in the past year for a better career opportunity; another 35% said they left a job because of burnout.

While the impact of the past two years has tended to be greater further down in organizations, many senior-level women (and men) are evaluating their careers and aspirations in light of the pandemic. Some women are saying “enough” to poor cultures that don’t support their advancement. They have the confidence to resign because the pandemic has helped them zero in on what really matters to them or because the hot job market gives them confidence that they can secure another role — and sometimes both. Especially in sectors like hospitality that have been hit hard in the pandemic, some have left the corporate world altogether to pursue other passions.

The theme of International Women’s Day in 2022 is Break the Bias — a call to all people to address the biases, stereotypes and discrimination that contribute to unequal opportunities for women.

In our research, women leaders indicated that unconscious bias, exclusion from informal networks or social activities, higher standards for women and assumptions about their interests or capabilities were biases that impacted their career progression. Women also shared examples, including bosses who didn’t provide direct feedback or guidance because they were afraid of hurt feelings or leaders assuming they weren’t interested in taking a new or larger role or moving to a new location. Another common bias affecting the advancement of women is the double standard around ambition and assertiveness. Unlike men, women who assert themselves and express their ambitions can be labeled “difficult.”

Other biases relate to the selection process, for example, when subjective measures are used erroneously as a proxy for certain capabilities — such as “presence” or “gravitas” for leadership. Similarly, when culture fit is considered in terms of similarities in backgrounds or interests — “sameness” — it can put women at a disadvantage over time. Even the preference for prior experience in the same role can be a hurdle for women, given that top corporate roles continue to be male dominated. Our research at the CEO level has shown that, while there are trade-offs between experience and future potential, past performance as CEO is not a reliable predictor of future success. Assuming a first-timer won’t be just as qualified may prevent a board from selecting the best long-term leader for the business. In our LinkedIn poll, 29 percent of respondents felt they had missed out on opportunities because of subjective criteria in the hiring process, and another 25 percent felt unfair assumptions about them and their capabilities hurt them in interviews.

To combat these biases, leaders can avoid making assumptions about women’s aspirations and interests and set the expectation that leaders will reach out to people with diverse backgrounds and encourage them to apply for larger, more visible roles. Even the simple step of making leaders aware of these kinds of biases and assumptions — making the unconscious conscious — can make a meaningful difference. Organizations also should adopt structured assessment approaches that focus on how well candidates align with the specific capabilities, leadership style and expertise required for success in the role, minimizing the influence of subjective measures and assumptions.

Many companies today prioritize gender diverse candidate slates for senior leadership roles and recognize that they do not have enough women on their teams. But hiring alone isn’t enough; organizations have to create an inclusive and equitable environment in which everyone can flourish and succeed.

In addition to addressing the biases that hold women back, organizations prioritizing the advancement of women should hold up a mirror to themselves to determine how truly welcoming they are to women. Many leaders think their organizations are welcoming to women, but their policies or their cultures are unfavorable — or they lack visible representation by women in senior-level leadership or board roles. Smart women do their homework and figure out quickly whether the company walks the talk.

Evolving the culture and prevailing mindsets is critical to becoming a more inclusive organization. Because only leaders can activate holistic change in an organization, they play a critical part in shifting the environment to one that is more inclusive and equitable. And, indeed, employees are looking to leaders to be visible advocates for inclusivity. In a recent Spencer Stuart LinkedIn poll, 53 percent of respondents said modeling inclusive behaviors is the most important thing leaders can do to create a more inclusive workplace. For many executives, a good first step is to reflect on how they show up as leaders and how others experience the current culture — and being visible, vulnerable and willing to learn.

The CEO and leadership team also drive change by articulating and aligning behind a clear and compelling vision for inclusion tied to business strategy, connecting and inspiring employees through a shared sense of purpose. They ensure the organization’s resources, goals and objectives, and processes support change. And they consistently model the behaviors they want to see in the organization.

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Numerous studies have shown that companies with a diverse leadership at the board and executive levels have better financial performance. McKinsey & Co. research, for example, found that company profits and share performance can be nearly 50 percent higher at companies with women well represented at the top versus those with the least gender diversity among leadership. Organizations can continue to make progress advancing women by breaking the biases that hold women back and building equitable and inclusive work environments. This also will ensure women have the stretch opportunities, sponsorship and support to build the leadership capabilities they need to succeed.