Women in Leadership: Creating Inclusive Environments

By Kayla Ratz and Chloë Faulkner

As the number of women in leadership roles continues to increase, so does organizational responsibility for retaining them. In this quest for retention, there is an increasing focus on diversity. But how do we work toward true diversity in the workplace?

We had the opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Brown, globally recognized DEI thought leader, best-selling author of the book How to be an Inclusive Leader, and partner in The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new program, Courageous Inclusion™. We discussed Jennifer’s thoughts on what it means to be a woman in leadership, the role courage plays in creating inclusive environments, and how we can all work toward achieving more diversity.

How and why have organizational efforts to champion women fallen short?

There's a difference between diversity and inclusion that is important to distinguish. Diversity is the who. It's a question of representation. It’s looking at all levels, not just overall, and understanding exactly where female representation is in the workforce. Does representation change and diminish as the level of leadership moves up the ladder? It normally does. Organizations need to track the data and really look at it in a granular way, both to identify areas where career velocity barriers for women exist and to understand why.

Inclusion is about a sense of belonging for women—and I would expand that to all underrepresented talent. There are similarities between where women start to peter out in the pipeline and where other talent peters out as well. The same barriers that prevent female leaders from ascending to leadership can also impede the progress of many other identities in the workplace. We don't want to track metrics only around representation—we also want to question what this environment feels like from a sense of belonging for women.

Intersectionality also plays a role in helping organizations create a culture of inclusion and belonging. Can you touch on how understanding intersectionality impacts different identities? How should this impact the way leaders support their teams?

When we think about a message for leaders, respecting intersectionality is about learning to expect and appreciate that multiple diversity dimensions, both visible and invisible, can be true for any one person. Women are not monoliths. Other identities a woman can carry—such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or disability, to name a few—can greatly impact their experience. Leaders must take the time to understand how intersectionality is impacting their employees and develop strategies to lift and support them, specific to their unique identities.

Leaders also need to lean into the microaggressions women—particularly women who carry other marginalized identities—face and understand what specific support and leadership development these women need to help them succeed. If there is underrepresentation within the power structure, find areas for sponsoring and mentoring. Sponsorship, in particular, has been shown to benefit underrepresented talent more than any other strategy. Find what is specifically needed for different identity communities so they aren’t seen as facing the exact same challenges—because they are not.

The world is changing. The entire next generation of talent is intersectional in so many ways and their needs and experiences are unique. If you’re in a position of power, make room for learning and hold yourself accountable for asking “Am I being intersectional in my approach?” Leaders need to meet people where they are and shouldn’t be afraid to address the different experiences of different women's identities.

Think about and plan for a differential investment that can begin to rebalance opportunity and equity. This starts with getting comfortable asking open-ended questions to learn what gets in the way of belonging and how someone’s experience can be driven by their identity. But to get that from people, you must know how to build trust with them. That’s a tricky part that is right at the front end of this journey: building the trust to begin those relationships and those conversations. Many of us don’t know where to start or how to begin these conversations. We could simply say, “I want to better understand your experience here. What kind of support do you need?” Or we could share a personal story about our experience in the workplace environment as a way to begin to build trust.

What about addressing leader biases, particularly about women, in their leadership strategies?

Women, particularly women of color, receive constant feedback that is allegedly about their misalignment with the current and narrow definition of professionalism. This can be tied to the way women express themselves. For example, when we are assertive, we often get feedback that we are not nice or likable, or we are too aggressive. In turn, the same behavior by a man is viewed as simply assertive. Someone’s dress may communicate the way they are most comfortable expressing their gender. Others may wear their hair in the most authentic style for them. But when we are outside the norm, biases get triggered, which can sometimes result in inappropriate comments and microaggressions.

Additionally, when we say gender, do we think of only cisgender people?  Gender identity and expression are not a binary, but on a continuum; each of us inhabits a unique place. Some of us utilize pronouns that may align with how others perceive our gender.  It’s equally important for us to disclose this when we feel ready to do so as it is for others to confirm with us how we would like to be called and not make an assumption about this.

How can senior leaders hold themselves accountable for moving women of all identities up the pipeline?

There needs to be strong accountability here. Organizations doing their work are training managers and leaders on inclusive strategies in recruitment, retention, promotion, and advancement. Many well-documented biases can creep into each stage of our people and performance processes. For example, candidate slates and interviewer slates can be more intentionally more diverse. When there is more complete representation at certain junctures in the process of hiring and retaining talent, there is less likelihood that bias will drive outcomes. Once there is greater diversity present, it’s equally important to build psychological safety and practice inclusion so that the input of all voices is welcomed, encouraged, and heeded.

There is also the challenge of how women are supported to grow. Many women continue to be left under-mentored, underrepresented, and under-sponsored and often sit outside the traditional power structure. That means women (alongside other underrepresented groups), due to their conditioning, are not as comfortable as white males are at selling themselves in an interview or actively negotiating for better wages. Women are not often brought along or made privy to the way things really work in a professional setting. They are not always coached or given beneficial feedback about what will make them successful in an environment. They need leadership and organizational leaders with access to power that share this power, with words and deeds that say, “I’m going to vouch for you,” “I'm going to make sure decision makers know about you,” or “I'm going to remind you that you can do it.”

I believe it is important to establish affinity groups or diversity councils. Cultivate an environment that involves bringing employees who identify in certain ways into organizational planning, early in the process. Invite a diversity of experiences and opinions into the process of reviewing organizational language, policies, and procedures for inclusion. This is critical to ensuring there are no gaps and trust is maintained. It also happens to be a great way to make people feel a sense of belonging in a culture.

How does this opportunity for support impact women being effective allies for other women?

We have to call out that the unfortunate consequence of not having a seat at the table is that we can assume scarcity vs. abundance. The impact of this may be that we don’t believe we have the bandwidth to support others, as we need so much support ourselves. The first step is to recognize this mindset and shift to looking at the opportunity of allyship, which means to address the real fact that opportunities have not been evenly spread across all identities of women. Those who have the opportunity to rise in a system and have a degree of power and influence or a seat at the table now have an opportunity to lead the way for role modeling the concept of lift-as-we-climb. This means using the access and power we have—and we means all of us—to highlight other women and demonstrate what inclusive leadership looks like. If we lift together, we’re going to be so much stronger.

But women, especially those in underrepresented groups, can’t take on all the work. The work needs to be proactively baked into how organizations train their managers and leaders and how they hold their executives and leaders accountable.

Ideally, this work is happening from the bottom or middle up while also proactively being driven from the top. When I consult organizations, one or the other is often missing. There is a lot of work being done, and wonderful, robust conversations about what needs to change, among talent who are early in their career. But it's not being heard, it's not being heeded, and it's not being woven into the strategic plan. These conversations need to be set up for accountability with measurements for success and specific targets developed in a plan to close the gap.

Thanks, Jennifer. These insights certainly lead to much consideration for leaders and lend to many more conversations like this! Any parting thoughts for our readers?

If you’re a leader, I challenge you to look for diversity gaps in your leadership. If any gaps exist, it is time to:

  • Address and understand why there is the gap.
  • Build trust and listen to the experiences of employees to better understand their barriers to success.
  • Systemically make a plan to be a better sponsor and mentor to the women in your organization.
  • Communicate the plan.
  • Stay accountable.

There are real opportunities to grab that insight and that beautiful wisdom that's coming from the women in your workforce.

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