By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week the UK group Opportunity Now released its latest report on developing and maintaining a gender-diverse pipeline of high performers. The report is a synthesis of the organization’s 20 years of research on the topic and draws together its best advice on how companies can work toward gender balance at every organizational level.

Helen Wells, Director of Opportunity Now, explained, “In the UK, there is a great focus in terms of the number of women on boards,” particularly following the release of the Lord Davies review which aimed to accelerate an increase in the percentage of female corporate directors.

“But our believe is that you need to manage the leaky pipeline. You need to manage the number of women throughout the organization – not just at the tip of the ice berg,” she continued. Indeed, as Wells points out in the opening letter to the report:

“Even among leading employers who are publically committed to promoting women’s advancement, women’s workforce participation reduces from 54% at non-managerial levels to 29% at senior management level, and further still to 18% at executive level, or just 12% in the private sector.”

She continued, “[The report] is the realization that any meaningful change in terms of leveling the playing field between men and women in organizations absolutely needs to come from a system-wide approach.”

Wells says she hopes that organizations will take a hard look at their systems, policies, and promotion processes through a gender lens.

Dispelling Myths

The paper, Changing Gear: Quickening the Pace of Women’s Progression, is a guide for organizations to dispel their own myths about why women aren’t advancing in large numbers. Wells explained that the tips in the paper will help companies examine their own systems and question faulty reasoning.

For example, “They might say ‘we’re absolutely a meritocracy’ or ‘we only promote people on talent.’” But looking at advancement numbers showing that say, 70% of managers or 85% of senior management are men should compel organizations to question that logic. “Does that mean you think your men are more talented than your women?” Wells asked. Most organizations would say no.

Another myth organizations may perpetuate is that women aren’t advancing because they leave to have children. But looking at attrition numbers or exit interviews may reveal female employees are leaving for more gender inclusive competitors, and are simply being replaced with men, Wells pointed out.

One key step the paper suggests is a clear-eyed and careful examination of workforce metrics, and a willingness to hold management accountable for improving gender balance based on those metrics. Another step is having leaders champion the cause of gender diversity in their organizations.

Wells said these work hand in hand. “Any action to create inclusive cultures is actually targeted in addressing real cultures – not the assumed one. On the other side of the coin, that must be led by the senior management team, like any other business strategy.”

System Review

Much of the report is dedicated to improving organizational review and promotion systems, to ensure each individual employee gets the support, leadership development, and career choices he or she desires. Wells emphasized that it’s not about developing new systems, but identifying broken systems already in place and retooling polices and programs so that they take gender issues into account.

“Most global organizations already have a complex infrastructure of processes, polices, appraisal systems in place. We’re not saying create a new infrastructure. Just make sure the infrastructure you’re already utilizing is not alienating or creating inadvertent barriers.”

She continued, “Look at them through a gender lens and unpick your organizational narrative to examine gender issues. Look at every stage and make sure the outcome is the outcome you really want.”

For example, Wells suggested, when promoting individuals to line management, make sure reviewers are asking questions and testing an understanding of inclusive leadership. “Develop inclusive managers who not just appreciate diversity, but who want to maximize and leverage difference for success.”

By implementing systems that work with people’s unique career goals rather than stifling individual’s aspirations when they don’t fit the traditional leadership mold, organizations can create a diverse pipeline of talent that will further business goals.