Real Leaders

How Women in Business Can Speak up and Break the Glass Ceiling

Businesses continue to confront the disruption caused by the pandemic and navigate an economically and socially viable path towards the recovery phase. But as we tackle all the issues, there is a risk that diversity and inclusion may recede as a strategic business priority for many companies.

Naturally, this is driven by focusing on the most pressing business survival needs, including safety measures and productivity and physical and mental well-being. However, while diversity and inclusion might be at risk, they are critical for business recovery and resilience.

Speaking with impact

Without the ability to speak with impact, presence, and gravitas, female leaders miss the opportunity to persuade and motivate others. Research suggests that it only takes 30 seconds to decide whether we think others are trustworthy, based on both what they are saying and how they say it. Especially in a heavily digitally-focused business environment, it’s not just about communicating the information but ensuring that others listen. Female leaders who communicate persuasively, both online and offline, are in a stronger position to have their voices heard.

As people progress through their careers, cultivating a solid ability to engage and persuade when communicating online and face-to-face will be critical. Research has identified how subtle unconscious bias can affect how women are perceived when they are presenting proposals. Dana Kanze is a doctoral fellow at Columbia Business School. She applies behavioral insights to understand sources of inequality in entrepreneurship and found that both men and women demonstrated a bias towards women when they were making presentations and applying for funding.

She found that men were more likely to be asked more ‘promotion-focused questions’ – those concerned with gains and emphasize growth and development potential. Women, however, tended to be asked more ‘prevention focus questions’ – concerned with avoiding losses and emphasizing reduction of risks. So, helping women develop real executive presence and impact when speaking may well determine whether they are heard in their organization. 

When it comes to gender diversity, executive sponsorship needs to come from the top – having visible female role models, mentoring the next generation of female leaders, and holding the senior leadership team accountable for improving the gender imbalance is necessary. Impostor syndrome can often be a reason behind the lack of ambition and confidence when speaking up, but in fact, most women who suffer from it are successful at work, despite their self-doubt. Therefore, women in leadership positions must communicate in a way that inspires people to want to act as a result of hearing what they have to say.

Investing in female talent

Claire Crompton, Director of The Audit Lab, explains, “In my experience, I’ve found that a big cause of gender imbalance in the workplace is not looking at the talent within, especially when it comes to filling management positions. Many people are immediately dismissed for internal senior hires because it doesn’t “fit” their path of progression, and there’s a mentality that you must hire from outside. You should never dismiss the people you already have within your business – it could be as simple as sending someone on a training course, and all of a sudden, they are perfect for that next position. Many businesses are afraid of spending money on training their staff, but it is so worth it. Training and hiring from within builds loyalty.”

“When it comes to women being listened to in business, the issue needs to be recast: it’s not a ‘woman problem’ per se. Women are not broken items to be fixed. Rather it is a systemic issue that must be addressed to facilitate more diverse voices in leadership positions.”, says Sheryl Miller, business coach, and author. However, we must also be aware of the practical issues at play that prevents women from having a seat at the boardroom table in the first place. Because there are very few diverse people in leadership positions in the first place, and there is a disparity between the expectation and the reality of having diverse candidates vying for leadership roles. 

According to Joanna Swash, CEO of Moneypenny, businesses should not aim to recruit a female who is the same as all the other men on the board – instead, they should look for different types of people who add unique qualities skills and ideas, to enhance the whole. It is essential to focus on equal opportunities from a young age, encouraging diversity of thought, experience, and background, making for stronger businesses and better business decisions. 

Gender diversity correlates with the bottom line, and companies with a gender-balanced C-suite have a higher likelihood of achieving above-average financial results. Yet, despite the clear benefits of a gender-balanced workforce, the ratio of women in leadership roles remains uneven. Research consistently demonstrates that a diverse workforce correlates with better business performance; however, removing unconscious gender bias is not just an HR initiative – it needs to become part of the culture where progress towards gender diversity is being measured and communicated across teams. When companies invest in diversity and inclusion, they are better positioned to create more adaptive, effective teams and are more likely to recognize diversity as a competitive advantage. They can also serve a more extensive, more diverse customer base and attract talent who shares the same values.

It is clear that for women to be heard in leadership may be helped by tackling some subtle systemic issues. However, it’s also clear from the many role models we see in modern life, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, that women can develop real impact and gravitas with the right intention, support, development, and exposure to a significant challenge.

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