Big changes rarely happen overnight, but when it comes to women in leadership roles, experts insist it’s not happening nearly fast enough
Construction, manufacturing, and engineering fields are attracting more women than ever before: The number of female engineers has more than doubled since the 1980s, women make up 29 percent of the manufacturing industry, and the National Association of Women in Construction has seen clear increases in employment for women over the past 10 years.
Women are finally getting hired for these roles, but the momentum seems to drop off after that — retaining and promoting those women isn’t happening at the same lively rate. McKinsey & Company reported that 100 men are promoted to management for every 79 women (which becomes 60 for women of color), and just 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Although we see more female engineers than ever before, women still make up only 14 percent of engineers overall.
Motivation for improving women’s representation in leadership is unfortunately limited. Another McKinsey & Company report found that half of men think it’s enough to have 10 percent of senior leadership roles filled by women, and a full third of women agree.
The status quo would tell us to leave leadership teams as they are — but challenging the status quo can have tangible benefits. Here’s how you can do it:
Having Women in Leadership Boosts Company Success
Having women as leaders in the workplace is important for a few different reasons, not least of which is the practical business sense it makes. Studies have repeatedly shown that companies with women in management and leadership roles simply perform better. For example, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are more likely to be profitable than those with poor gender diversity. Other benefits of gender diverse workplaces include lower turnover, easier recruitment, and increased productivity.
Why do more gender-balanced companies perform better? One theory is that men and women tend to possess different leadership qualities, which means companies with more women benefit from a wider range of skills and perspectives in leadership. Some data even suggests that the leadership qualities women possess tend to align specifically with the manufacturing industry’s needs: to prepare for the future and innovate.
How to Build and Foster Female Leadership
Here are some ways you can foster opportunities for women to pursue leadership roles at your organization.
Hard work pays off, but when it comes to climbing the professional ladder, it’s also who you know. Professionals with mentors advance more quickly, earn higher salaries, and are more satisfied in their jobs than professionals without mentors. Unfortunately, as it stands, men tend to gravitate towards mentoring other men. With fewer women in leadership, that often means a shortage of mentors for entry- and mid-level female employees.
An effective solution is to engage existing leaders at your company — whether men or women — in mentoring women with leadership potential. While you may be tempted to pair two men or two women, think about the skill sets of each individual rather than their genders. Pairing a male employee and female employee with complementary skills and personalities can result in a more well-rounded relationship between mentor and mentee.
The women at your company may be less comfortable taking the kinds of risks that leaders need to take. Research shows that men tend to apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the criteria, while women wait until they meet 100 percent of the criteria to apply. Women are statistically less likely to take risks, and while that can have benefits, it also means they may be missing out on opportunities for advancement.
Encourage healthy risk-taking as part of your company culture, and highlight employees who have taken risks and been rewarded. Ensure employees don’t feel they will be reprimanded or humiliated if they take a professional risk that doesn’t pan out. Frame setbacks or failures as learning opportunities, rather than personal failures — and train your managers, executives, and mentors to do the same when working one-on-one with staff.
Encourage your employees, especially women interested in pursuing leadership roles, to network with other professionals in the community. Make your staff aware of industry associations, unions, and even volunteer positions on nonprofit boards. You can highlight these in company-wide meetings, post them on the bulletin board, and recommend specific opportunities to individual employees you think could benefit from them. Even better, offer to pay for each employee to attend one or two networking events per year.
Joining an industry association, volunteering on a nonprofit board, or even simply representing the company at an industry event can all offer priceless opportunities for women to develop a wide range of professional skills and contacts.
Implement training programs for aspiring leaders both on the job and online. Research e-learning solutions, local workshops, and even conferences where employees can develop their professional and leadership skills. Often, a combination of virtual and in-person learning has the best results.
E-learning is one of the most effective ways to stay on top of new tools and technologies, while on-the-job shadowing and workshops offer unparalleled access to situational learning and support networks. Opportunities to improve interpersonal skills are crucial, as emotional intelligence plays a large role in the decision to promote someone to a leadership position.
Training women for leadership positions isn’t just about women: it’s about everyone at the company. Your future leaders will grow best in supportive environments where they feel valued, respected, and comfortable taking healthy risks. To create this environment, you must have an inclusive company culture.
Design a healthy work-life balance at your company. Women are more likely to prioritize this, so retaining women for leadership roles may be easier if you can offer more flexible scheduling, time off, and robust employee benefits. Most importantly, take an active stance against sexism, harassment, and other forms of gender discrimination. This is critical to creating an atmosphere in which women can — and want to — thrive.
If we continue progressing at the current rate, the number of women in management is expected to rise just 1 percent over the next 10 years. If we work to hire, train, and promote more women to management roles, in those same 10 years the future of women in management can look much brighter. Don’t wait for your female employees to line up for a leadership spot — take a more active role in training and preparing women for leadership positions. With both men and women at the helm, your employees and your entire organization will succeed in surging forward in the age of digitization.
Written by: Michelle Stedman, Vice President of Operations and Talent Management Strategist, joined the BirdDogHR team in 2012 and leads the Professional Services, Product Development, and Customer Care teams. Michelle’s multifaceted background in corporate recruiting and agency staffing gives her a unique perspective into developing professional services that help BirdDogHR customers achieve talent management success. A published author and frequent presenter, Michelle speaks to AGC of America and SHRM audiences across the country.