We’re failing at promoting women

Written by: Rosalie Harrison
Published on: 6 Jan 2020

Rosalie HarrisonCompanies know they need to create a work environment where women leaders can advance, but many get it wrong, says Rosalie Harrison.

Women represent more than 50 per cent of the population and a rapidly growing percentage of the most highly educated portion of employable talent.

Nonetheless, despite often well-intentioned initiatives on women and their careers, many companies still fall short of their goals to promote and retain women in leadership. Here are some of the more common reasons why.

1. Failure to treat women as individuals

Women are not a minority group. They’re a diverse population and their reasons for accepting or rejecting a promotion must always be negotiated and assessed individually.

The shared experiences of women in a given working environment tend to happen because they are treated as a homogenous group. If you are having problems with promoting women, look at your work culture and environment rather than at the women themselves.

Moreover, do not confuse professional women’s issues as being synonymous with working parent or caregiver issues – 20 per cent of professional women will not be a parent or caregiver.

However, working mums share many issues and challenges that need to be considered. But these issues are also quite relevant for all parents. In fact, these issues will be increasingly important to the younger generation of workers, male and female, as parenting preferences and traditional gender roles continue to erode.

2. Being inflexible with working arrangements

Within the context of any executive promotion negotiation, the terms and conditions should be designed to enable the candidate to succeed. A standard package that has been designed for a traditional candidate may or may not be relevantly configured for a woman candidate. For example, a working mother whose spouse also has an executive position may need to know that covering or paying for caregiving and/or balancing or reducing travel requirements will be offered before considering the role.

Companies need to signal their willingness and commitment to have discussions about them in good faith and without future adverse impact so they don’t miss out on strong women candidates. This can be communicated in a variety of ways. For example, at the time the promotion offer is made, you can ask the candidate what she would need to be successful in the role and express your willingness to address and explore individual needs that may require adjustments.

When negotiating terms, women should not be unfairly burdened with the fear that they are creating a precedent for all women, unless such precedent considerations would also have been applicable to negotiations with male candidates.

3. Not given enough time

Give women candidates more time and support to consider a promotion offer. If a woman is being offered a promotion into an executive team that is male-dominated, the task before her is daunting. She is not just considering accepting a new job with greater responsibilities, she’s also assessing her ability to be successful in an environment that is not designed for her, where there is little social support, and where there are often unfairly high performance expectations and no room for error.

Constantly proving yourself in such an environment is an exhausting undertaking and can also be quite lonely. (Notably, the same is true for any candidate that will find themselves in a minority situation within the executive team).

The reality is that executive promotions for women can often move them into a role where they will have much more control over how they work. It is the role just before that promotion that is often the worst in terms of workload and lack of control. This aspect of the promotion is often not fully appreciated or explored.

In such circumstances, it can be helpful to use the services of a third-party consultant during deliberations and negotiations. Women considering promotions often need a safe place to voice their concerns, explore their needs and express their insecurities without undermining their executive voice and closely guarded credibility. 

Rosalie Harrison is partner at Borderless Leadership & Consulting