This article is in honor of International Women’s Day.
In a recent workshop, a high-achieving female shared a story that nearly crushed our spirits. Having worked in the leadership communication field for over 15 years, we like to think we’ve made progress in leveling the playing field for women in the workplace. Sometimes, though, we are given a stark reminder that there is much more work to be done.
Here’s the short version: A female leader is asked to speak at an upcoming, invite-only conference where she will have significant exposure to leading thinkers and potential funders. She is excited and energized to represent her company on such a big stage.
A week later, her boss appears at her office door and tells her that he is giving the speaking opportunity to her male counterpart – a person who is loosely connected to the presentation topic and would need significant preparation to speak with any authority. After her initial shock, she summons the composure to ask why. [Slow clap for engaging in a difficult conversation.]
The boss replies, “I think he’ll have a greater impact on the funders, which will help the organization long-term.” That is the shortest and most vague answer to a legitimate question we’ve heard in a long time, but not at all surprising. The boss doesn’t want to or is unable to acknowledge any gender bias.
This scenario is an example of what not to do when trying to foster female talent. Since this episode, we have been looking at best practices around leveling the playing field. As we all celebrate International Women’s Day, we thought it was a good time to offer three steps leaders can take to foster female talent.
1. Offer high-visibility projects. The research shows that women do step up, and do apply for promotions. It’s just that they don’t get chosen as often. Organizational leaders can help by assigning key projects and high-visibility opportunities to both men and women in more equitable ratios.
2. Provide timely, tangible feedback. The most concerning data point around women’s leadership development is the lack of specific, actionable feedback. If the boss in our story was truly concerned about his female direct report speaking at the event, that doorway conversation should have turned into a meaningful, two-way discussion about her professional development. This is one of the biggest gaps in career advancement: opportunities for career development conversations that go beyond “hang in there; keep up the good work.”
3. Be willing to be wrong. Our female leader should have had the opportunity to push back, and convince her boss she was the right person for the job. But, the relationship – the trust, the two-way communication, the openness – wasn’t there, so she stayed silent.
We have asked her to keep us posted on the next speaking opportunity so that we might help her step up and over the gender bias obstacle, and while she’s waiting, to help her develop her assertive communication skills.