More women hold leadership positions than ever before. That’s great news, except… there are still more FTSE 100 CEOs called Steve than there are women on that list. You’re even less likely to see someone who looks like you if you have an ethnic minority background or are openly ‘out’ as LGBTQ+.
This lack of representation is a business problem. Companies with homogenous leadership teams take a hit in both profits and performance. This is especially true when they fail to represent their customer base. By contrast, diverse leadership teams are more creative, innovative, and able to solve problems quickly.
But breaking the glass ceiling is complicated. We need policies and legislation that remove barriers and create opportunities for under-represented groups, while at the organisational level, we need to examine the role of corporate culture and leadership in perpetuating discrimination and unconscious bias.
And what about us as individuals? Is there still a place for women-only programmes and other targeted support? Are these a good way to challenge our own thinking and behaviour, or are they putting too much responsibility on individuals to ‘fix’ themselves to fit outdated organisational models?
For some, it risks lumping all women together, and papering over our diverse experiences for the greater (but looser) goal of ‘equality’. Others see women-only programmes as ‘leadership-lite’, focusing on power poses and pilates instead of tackling the real structural barriers to promotion.
At White and Lime, we don’t see it this way. We believe women-only leadership programmes are an important piece in the workplace equality puzzle – and here’s why.
“Why focus on women? Everyone can benefit from leadership programmes.” It’s a fair point. Plenty of men aren’t making it to executive level either.
But treating everyone the same isn’t the answer, because we’re not starting from the same place. Our differences can create barriers to participation, particularly when there are overlapping aspects of disadvantage such as gender, parenthood, ethnicity or sexual preference. It’s harder to feel confident if you are in the minority (in your industry or level in the hierarchy) or feel or look different to mainstream organisational culture.
We don’t want to ‘fix’ women or hold men back: we want to hold a mirror up to the social conditioning that affects us all. Providing extra support to women and other under-represented groups helps level the playing field.
This is a tough one to accept, especially if you don’t feel it personally. Still, evidence shows women tend to experience more self-doubt, while men are much more likely to put themselves forward for promotion.
Neuroscientists and sociologists haven’t yet agreed why this gap exists (some consider it hard-wired in our brains, while others see this ‘wiring’ as being caused by our social conditioning). But the end result is clear: more missed opportunities for women, with fewer women in positions of influence.
While this looks like a confidence problem, the reality is more complicated. Recent studies suggest that men and women actually feel similar levels of confidence, but since self-confidence isn’t rewarded equally in the workplace, women are socialised to appear both self-assured AND modest. A man displaying alpha male behaviours is often seen as a strong, assertive leader, whereas a woman behaving in the same way is likely to be seen as bossy and unlikeable. So, for many women, perhaps it’s not always a lack of confidence but a fear of appearing too confident that holds them back.
(In my next article, I’ll look a little more closely at some of the perceived differences in the way men and women think and behave.)
Whether you identify with these stereotypes or not, the trends are statistically significant enough to suggest a large number of people must feel like square pegs being forced into round holes at work. Why not try to find a way to let everyone be themselves – especially when those individual differences could build stronger teams?
In our workshops, we encourage clients to explore these issues and reframe character traits previously perceived as weaknesses, both in themselves and in how they see others.
The best workplaces allow everyone to operate at their full potential. When outdated systems are upheld, we all lose out. This means leadership teams must make explicit efforts to dismantle the structural barriers that get in the way of opportunities for under-represented groups.
This isn’t just about supporting women to redefine confidence for themselves – it’s about recognising the role we must all play in challenging systemic bias.
We’re not asking men to ‘lean out’, though they do have a responsibility (as a result of their historical privilege) to help facilitate change. Women’s responsibility is to draw attention to the places where change is needed. That’s not always easy, so women-only workshops create a safe environment for women to find their voices.
Targeted workshops for under-represented groups are not going to fix the inequality issue on their own. But while we wait for Board members to role model inclusivity and change attitudes and policies at the organisational level, it’s right that marginalised groups should get some additional support.
Our women-only programmes aren’t about telling women they need to be fixed – they’re about reassuring women they don’t need fixing and celebrating difference. Our aim is to provide a place to explore challenges with others who get it and work on strategies to help us thrive in our careers, together and individually.
If you would like to discuss how targeted development programmes can support your organisation to become more inclusive, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much gratitude to Valerie Teller and Siobhan Swindells for their invaluable input into the research for this article.
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