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How Change Agents Can Push for Institutional Change toward Gender Diversity

By Robin Madell

There’s only so much that individuals can do on their own to try to catapult their careers. One finding of Catalyst’s Myth of the Ideal Worker report is that even when women tried all the strategies they had been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth. Therefore, as with latticing, it’s up to the companies themselves to meet women halfway.

DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2011 found that some organizations are doing a better job than others of getting women into leadership positions—and those organizations have more formal processes in place for talent management.

But how can change agents encourage their organizations to make these changes?

Working within the Formal Structure

Jazmine Boatman, PhD, manager of DDI’s Center for Applied Behavioral Research and an author of the study, says the more objective the process is, the more likely women are to succeed on this level playing field. “The fact is, organizations that have formal processes for selection, development, and succession tend to have more women in leadership positions. Coincidence? Probably not,” says Boatman.

There are many institutional problems that prevent women from advancing in the workplace, such as company culture, pay inequities, lack of career customization, and gender stereotyping. The first and most important step is for organizations and institutions to recognize that these problems exist and that they can be solved—but only with the buy-in of the board and administration, says Dr. Linda Brodsky, founder and president of Expediting the Inevitable, an organization that works with women physicians and healthcare organizations to create a more flexible workplace.

“The structure of the workplace needs to be overhauled thoughtfully and methodically,” says Brodsky. “It is a top down/bottom up effort. They need to recognize that this situation hits their bottom line.”

A Quantitative Approach

Lawyer, consultant, and researcher Cynthia Calvert says that firms don’t intend to make it difficult for women lawyers and most don’t believe that they do, which makes it difficult to implement solutions that will create real change. To generate institutional support for women interested in cracking through the ceiling, she recommends the following:

  • Gather objective data that demonstrate the effects of the unexamined gender bias, such as the number of women lawyers on the firm’s largest and most important cases, the average tenure of men and women at the firm, and the number of women on the firm’s executive committee
  • Have a briefing on a management-related topic, such as conducting more effective evaluations, and educate about the effects of unexamined biases
  • Give partners a list of simple, concrete actions they can take to advance women lawyers at the firm, and then hold them accountable in their evaluations or compensation for completing a set number of them. Examples of such actions include taking a woman lawyer to lunch or a bar association event, co-authoring an article with a woman lawyer or helping her get a speaking engagement, introducing a woman lawyer to a potential client or referral source, and attending a CLE seminar about gender bias

Regardless of industry, Brodsky recommends a quantitative approach, using outcome measures that include economic, satisfaction, and other measures of productivity based on the particular industry.

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