Head in the sand

Why Your Company Can’t Find Great Female Talent

If you run an organization that struggles to attract and retain a gender-balanced workforce, it’s time to look in the mirror. Because make no mistake: It’s all your fault.

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

Women are 60 percent of the talent pool. They make 80 percent of consumer-buying decisions. They will soon earn some $18 trillion globally. They run countries—Germany and Scotland to name two—and companies like Pepsi, Lockheed Martin, and GlaxoSmithKline. Fun fact: Corporations that have more women outperform those that have less.

So let’s stop saying that women lack confidence, need to lean in, or aren’t as ambitious as men. Enough already. Even if this is sometimes true, it’s not the problem. It’s a symptom. By insisting on these talking points, we’re giving ammunition to those who resist pushing for gender balance in the workplace.

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Instead, let’s focus on the fundamentals. And that starts by asking this: What’s wrong with organizations that can’t attract, retain, and develop female talent? Only then we can get to the root of the problem. Because you want to know what doesn’t work: trying to fix women. I’m talking about all those well-meaning, but ineffective programs that target female talent: internal networks, coaching, leadership programs, and so on. I advise 21st-century women and companies to just say no to these initiatives for three reasons:

Reason #1: They put women in a ghetto.

These programs frame women as needing help, when today’s challenge is actually building a business’s understanding of gender differences and the opportunities that result. Initiatives for 50/50 gender-balanced talent pools are fne, but women-only approaches reinforce in everyone’s mind the flawed assumption that women aren’t quite ready for leadership. They are. The real question is this: Are leaders ready for balance? 

Reason #2: They create a false sense of accomplishment and progress.

The “women’s issue” approach makes everyone feel good, without accomplishing the original goal. Women are happy because they’re being given something, and they’re making great new connections. Men are happy because they feel they’re contributing to an important company cause, so they can tick that box and get back to serious business.

Reason #3: They don’t work.

In my experience, women’s programs are chronically underfunded, run only by women for women, and are perceived as irrelevant to business success. (Yes, a few companies have done it well and seriously, but usually as part of a broader effort.) It’s so much cheaper to underwrite a conference for the ladies than, say, redesign your sales and marketing strategy to adapt to the reality of an increasingly female customer base. 

So where should companies start? With their leaders—all leaders! Reality is, the majority of today’s corporate leaders (all of them, males and females) are unconsciously incompetent around gender issues. Worse, many are also not convinced that it’s business-critical. Believe me, I’ve checked.

The solution starts by reframing the problem like you would any other business issue. Here are the first three steps.

Step #1: Let executive teams argue about it.

Leaders need coaching, particularly in an age when Facebook offers a choice of 52 genders. It’s a highly charged, emotionally raw, and potentially risky issue for their reputations or even their jobs—as a Saatchi & Saatchi executive found out the hard way in 2016. 

Many executives are not aware of the avalanche of research showing the benefits to their bottom line. Likewise, they have no idea how to implement change. Even those who support more balance assume their teams are aligned with their personal convictions and balance will just happen. Truth is, no executive team I’ve ever met is aligned on the need and rationale for gender balance. CEOs must engage colleagues; they need time and a safe space to argue about it.

Executives have a deep belief in the meritocracy of their own rise, so they often blame gender imbalances on personal choices. These assumptions need to be tested. A great starting point is an analysis of the company’s gender statistics and a deep dive into what may explain them. Only then will leaders begin to understand the impact of the company culture they’ve created. It’s the only way to avoid unconsciously reproducing self-replicating teams.

In my experience, lack of alignment among leadership teams is by far the number-one reason gender policies never get implemented. They don’t buy it, so they don’t sell it.

Step #2: Shift the culture from the top down. 

Once leaders are aligned on why they want balance, and how urgently, they need to make it happen. They aren’t champions, sponsors, or other HR-speak. They’re doers. They need to be accountable for the change, and lead people through it. That means balancing their own teams, shifting their language and behaviors, and checking themselves on preferences (like meetings at 7 a.m. to see who’s man enough).

They need to become what we call “gender bilingual,” meaning they inspire 100 percent of their talent pools and effectively connect with 100 percent of potential customers. 

Any approach that delegates gender balance to the HR or diversity department, in my experience, is doomed to fail. If leaders aren’t accountable for balance, it simply doesn’t happen. 

An effective approach: Make each member of the global executive team accountable, and then compare their performance in quarterly reviews. That’s when you’ll start to see progress. That’s when everyone within the organization will begin to believe you’re serious.

And stop applauding the occasional woman who’s finally promoted. Instead, acknowledge, celebrate, and reward the managers who successfully build the kind of balanced team you want. Newly inclusive cultures need to be perceived as a win-win for everyone.

Step #3: Adapt your internal systems.

The traditional approach to talent management—where linear careers are identified in their 30s, accelerated in their 40s, and peak in their 50s—doesn’t reflect reality. Recruiting, retention, and promotion systems are all gender-biased, as is leadership identification, criteria, and succession planning.

Consider international mobility, which is a common criteria for high-potential identification and promotion. It also has become a systemic obstacle to gender balance.

How so? Ask most men if they’re mobile and they’ll savvily answer yes, though they may later refuse a move because their wife’s employer won’t transfer her … and she has the higher income. Ask most women and they will honestly answer no, even though it’s because her youngest kid is finishing high school and she’d happily pack her bags in a year. 

Many sales and marketing approaches are outdated too. Consider the advertising business: The vast majority of creative directors are still male, but media buyers are now overwhelmingly female. Both sides of this business would clearly benefit from gender bilingualism, as well as leaders who recognize that they’re tapping only half the talent pool, half the ideas, and half the potential market.

So if your company really wants to tap into the benefits of gender balance, it’s time to adapt your leadership, culture, and systems to 21st century talent and markets. It’s where the growth is. Are you ready to unlock it?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20-first, a leading international gender-balance consultancy. She works with top management at some of the world’s best-known companies to identify the business opportunities of gender balance and how to achieve it.