This post is by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox from HBR.org
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“Can you help us recruit more women?” was the recent request from the head of a large company’s IT services division.
“Sure,” I said, “but are you able to retain and promote them? If not, it’s a bit of a waste of time and money.”
“No,” he ruefully admitted after a brief discussion. “We have gender gaps in our retention and promotion numbers, too.”
A different company — this one in health care — was asking for help in promoting more women into senior leadership. They had lots of programs aimed at women in middle management, and were proud of the progress they had made. In fact, they now had more women than men at every level except senior management — something they were determined to fix. “Sure,” I said, “but wouldn’t you like to start recruiting and developing more men at the lower levels? The current situation isn’t very balanced.
The case for the bottom-line benefits of gender balance keeps getting made, and the will to get there keeps growing. Now we need more accurate analyses of what is going on. I find we often have to rework overcomplicated Excel mounds of data into simple, powerfully visual graphs to spot the real problem: recruitment, retention, or promotion.
Each issue requires different responses, and solving one will not solve the others. So do you know where your problem actually lies? Good graphs usually tell all. If you have a gap right from the start but the lines showing men and women at each level stay roughly parallel after that, you have a recruitment issue. If the lines widen precipitously at each level, you have an early-promotion issue that will fairly dependably cause a turnover gap as well. If your lines stay relatively close together but then open wide at the most senior levels, you have a glass ceiling, or senior-promotion, issue.
If you have a recruitment issue: Figure out what ratio of men and women you’d consider balanced. It may be 50-50, or it may reflect the gender makeup of graduate programs that feed new hires into your industry. (Law firms, for instance, tend to recruit 60% women since most law grads are now female.) If you have an imbalance, assess your brand image and recruitment ads and channels. Do they skew masculine or feminine? A company called Textio will scan your ads for masculine or feminine-leaning vocabulary.
If you have a retention issue: If one gender is leaving your company in disproportionate numbers (e.g., if you are recruiting 40% women and 60% men but your turnover is 60% women and 40% men), you have a retention gap. If this is the case, there’s little point in thinking that more recruitment will stem the flow. You will simply be throwing good money after bad. Here, you will want to address deeper issues and systems. Law firms, again, are a great example of this problem. Despite recruiting more women, they see massive losses of female lawyers after about two years. By the time you get to the senior partner level, 80% of the lawyers are male.
If you have a promotion issue: Many companies think they have a “glass ceiling” when the reality is more of a challenge. They are actually suffering from a situation in which gender ratios shift in favor of one gender from the very first promotions and then just keep getting more imbalanced. To solve this, you need a major wake-up call and cultural shift to get the majority of people involved in people development to understand what they are doing and why. It’s usually not overt sexism, but rather something more unconscious. If you really have an issue only at the most senior levels, it’s a session with your executive team that is needed to build awareness of their behavior and preferences and to get them to set some KPIs for their own evolution.
In my experience, most large companies today don’t have a recruitment issue. Aside from a handful of sectors, most are gender-balanced at entry level – or imbalanced in favor of women. Also, relatively few of our clients have a real glass ceiling issue; the pipeline into senior leadership trickles to a drought much earlier, especially in core functions. The crux of the issue for most companies now is managing the middle and addressing retention and promotion issues there.
This is where too many leadership teams get confused and frustrated with the whole business. They either don’t have data at all or they have so much that they’re drowning in it. They’re not clear about the causes of imbalance or their own role in creating systemic and self-reproducing cultures and systems. In particular, they are not clear about their own very direct role in shifting their ratios: the culture they create and perpetuate and the self-replicating models of leadership they promote.
Simplicity speaks to both sexes. Take a simple look at the shape of gender balance in your business. What’s your story?