By: Keshawn Hughes
In early 2023, a groundbreaking moment occurred in the Fortune 500: Women led over 10% of America’s largest public companies, marking a historic milestone. While phenomenal, much of the path towards more gender-diverse representation in leadership is uncharted and remains highly challenged.
Studies consistently show that women actually score higher than men in most leadership skills, including taking initiative, driving for results, and developing employees. Despite this, women leaders encounter headwinds that stymie growth, spawn fatigue, and result in harder passages to advancement.
The Women in the Workplace 2022 report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, details many hurdles women leaders confront. Now, more than ever, women leaders are stepping away from companies that don’t prioritize flexibility, employee well-being, diversity, equity, and inclusion. As for the future of work, a leadership pipeline crisis looms as young professionals willingly switch jobs when they don’t experience the right environment for their growth and advancement.
To address these issues and pave the way for more gender-diverse leadership and enhanced workforce well-being, organizations must take targeted steps to ensure current and future success:
Step 1: Create and Cultivate Truly Inclusive Work Cultures
To foster an inclusive work environment, organizations must invest in creating cultures where all employees, regardless of gender, feel valued, heard, and respected. Adapting behavior changes that foster a sense of belonging, celebrate individual differences, and promote collaborative communication between leadership and the broader workforce are essential for leaders and organizations today.
- Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that cater to diverse employee communities and provide a platform for sharing experiences, networking, and driving positive change within the organization.
- Provide ongoing inclusion workshops and programs, not just one-time events, that meet employees where they are while sparking positive behavior change and continuous opportunities for growth.
Step 2: Implement Inclusive Talent Acquisition and Promotion Practices
Combating unconscious bias is crucial for promoting gender diversity in leadership. To do this successfully, organizations should incorporate inclusive practices into recruitment and promotion processes to root out biased evaluations and foster fair and equitable decision-making. It’s also important to measure and track progress for transparency and accountability to achieve gender diversity goals.
- Institute diverse interview panels and recruiting teams representing different races, ages, neurodivergence, sexuality, educational backgrounds, religions, genders, physical abilities, and perspectives to reduce bias and improve the fairness of the hiring process.
Step 3: Invest in Targeted Leadership Development Programs
To empower aspiring women leaders, organizations should invest in leadership development programs tailored specifically for women and women of color. By providing targeted coaching, mentorship, sponsorship, networking opportunities, and actionable feedback, companies can attract, retain, and equip aspiring leaders with the necessary skills and support to excel in higher echelons of leadership.
- Establish mentoring programs that pair aspiring women leaders with experienced executives, providing valuable guidance, support, and career advice.
- Implement sponsorship initiatives where senior leaders actively advocate for the advancement of gender-diverse talent within the organization, providing them with opportunities to showcase their abilities.
Step 4: Pay People Equitably
Addressing the gender pay gap is crucial for promoting gender diversity in leadership and ensuring a fair and thriving workforce. With over 40% of mothers serving as breadwinners, pay equity holds significant implications for families and the economy. Studies show that a 10% increase in women’s workforce participation leads to a 5% across-the-board increase in wages, benefiting both men and women. To achieve pay equity, companies must conduct regular parity audits and transparently address pay inequities. Fair compensation not only enhances employee satisfaction and productivity but also attracts top talent, which fosters a culture of inclusion and innovation.
- Make salary bands and compensation ranges transparent within the organization to foster a culture of fairness and openness around pay practices.
- Provide salary negotiation workshops for employees, particularly women, to equip them with the skills and confidence to negotiate fair compensation.
Step 5: Support Work-Life Flexibility
Encouraging work-life flexibility is essential for fostering effective leadership across all genders. When employees feel empowered and supported in both their personal and professional lives, they are more likely to excel when promoted and presented with leadership opportunities. An aspect of this that expanded during the pandemic are hybrid and remote work options. Both demonstrate an organizational commitment to accommodating individual needs while aligning with inclusive culture best practices. The benefits of such flexibility are substantial, including improved retention rates, higher employee satisfaction, and enhanced leadership performance.
- Offer flexible work hours to accommodate employees’ personal needs. For example, an employee may work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. one day and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on another to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Step 6: Champion Visibility by Celebrating Diversity Successes
Celebrations trigger positive emotions and activate our brain’s reward system in ways that solidify habits and reinforce positive behaviors. Through genuine recognition and meaningful celebrations that highlight the achievements of gender-diverse leaders in the organization, companies demonstrate their commitment to nurturing an environment where all employees can flourish and succeed. Not only does it boost their confidence, but it also creates a virtuous cycle that primes, motivates, and cultivates a diverse talent pool with opportunities to be recognized and thrive.
- Establish formal recognition programs that regularly celebrate the accomplishments of diverse leaders and employees, making appreciation an integral part of the company culture.
- Highlight diverse leaders and employees through internal communications, newsletters, or social media to showcase their achievements and inspire others.
Step 7: Nurture and Encourage Resilience
Resilience plays a crucial role in the success of women leaders, especially African-American women and others from underappreciated groups who face unique challenges. Emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility are essential skills that help employees navigate workplace obstacles and transform setbacks into opportunities. Organizations must recognize and value these vital skills to foster resilience and support the advancement of diverse leaders.
- Offer neuroscience-informed resilience training and workshops to help employees thrive through challenges and strengthen emotional intelligence and regulation skills.
- Provide access to culturally-responsive mental health resources, leadership coaching, employee assistance programs, and counseling services to support employees during difficult times.
A conversation about gender-diverse leadership is incomplete without acknowledgment and respect for non-binary and gender-fluid individuals within organizations. An intersectional approach that offers specific benefits and accommodations to meet the unique needs of all employees promotes a culture of acceptance, engagement, and kindness that ripples through all aspects of the workplace and beyond.
The path forward towards inclusive, equitable and enhanced workforce well-being is not merely a checkbox exercise, but a commitment to creating positive, thriving experiences for all stakeholders, from employees and customers to advocates, partners, and board members alike. When we embrace this vision proactively with practical awareness, support, and accountability, we express the best of human ingenuity, care, and consciousness. This results in a positive ripple effect of gender-diverse leadership that echoes far beyond the confines of our workplaces into our hearts and society as a whole.
About the Author
Keshawn Hughes is an intuitive keynote speaker, International Coaching Federation (ICF) certified executive coach, neuroleadership consultant, and NeuroSavvy® Leadership founder. She serves in the top 1% of coaches with neuroscience expertise and holds a B.S. in Business Administration and Marketing, an M.S. in Strategic Communication, and neuroscience specializations in Education, Entrepreneurship, Health, Spirituality, and Relationships. With twenty years of marketing and corporate leadership experience for top-ranked, global brands, Keshawn provides the language, strategies, and practical steps to help HR leaders, DEI professionals, and organizations improve employee health, engagement, and retention.