Many organisations say they want to increase the number of women in leadership roles and close the “gender gap,” and while many factors play into this, a good place for these employers to start is to focus on engagement.
Ongoing discussions about women’s career development can give them a comfortable space to articulate their needs, blossom in their current roles, and give way to leadership opportunities.
The truth is that, although the world is waking up to the many challenges facing women in the workplace, women are still under represented in growing industries, over represented in roles threatened by automation and there is still a stubbornly low levelel of women in senior roles.
According to a Right Management survey of over 4400 associates and managers in 15 countries, a full 82% of today’s employees would be more engaged in their work if managers conducted meaningful career conversations with them on a regular basis. Not performance reviews that focus on “How did I do?”, but career coaching conversations that focus on “How will I develop?”, “How do I fit?”, and “What’s next?”.
Women could take advantage of these kinds of proactive career conversations to address their individual needs, articulate their value, and advance their careers. Employers could use these conversations to better understand their employees and align their strengths with what the organisation needs.
While it can be hard for anyone to articulate their value to an organisation, women report more discomfort with this than men. Historically, many women have shied away from talking about their accomplishments and strengths because they fear they will be perceived as “bragging.”
Yet, to attain leadership roles, women need to answer these kinds of questions: “What do I add to my team?”, “What specific strengths do I have, and what are examples of those in action?”, and “How has the organisation benefited from my work in the last six months?”.
As an employer, these ongoing discussions can be a great place for you to draw out the answers to these questions and help your female employees become more comfortable in articulating their value in specific measurable terms. To be clear, career conversations need not be a parade of accomplishments, but there will be times when you, as a leader, will have to support and model ways that women can and should share how they have added value to the organisation.
Organisational alignment is a term used to define a time when an employee is doing work that is consistent with her values, talents, and interests, and that work is seen to be of clear benefit to the organisation. Ongoing career conversations are a great way to talk openly about alignment – addressing questions like what does the employee need? What does the organisation need? What value do they offer each other?
As an employer, a key path to higher engagement (i.e. retention and productivity) from your female employees may lie in fleshing out their needs, particularly those around flexibility. Since women traditionally bear the weight of family care giving – childcare and eldercare – the need for flexible work hours and work location top many women’s wish lists. However, these are not issues many women are comfortable raising for fear of being dismissed as not serious about their careers or roles.
If ongoing conversations are in place, this could be a path to establishing clear expectations and allowing more flexibility. When an employee understands what she needs to achieve, when and where the work happens may become less important.
Ongoing and intentional career conversations must also lead to action. Your job as a leader is to partner with your high potentials to be jointly accountable for identifying the next steps in their careers.
Whether you can help them identify new experiences internally, gain exposure to other leaders or lines of business, or promote an opportunity for them to learn new skills, you should plan to conclude every career conversation by soliciting a call to action from the women who work for you. Hold them accountable for contributing their gifts to the organisation in a meaningful way: plan the work, then, work the plan.
Organisations need to engage with female employees to create a platform where these employees are comfortable in freely engaging with their managers outside the mandatory employee review, and focus on how you as an employer can coach employees into leaders.
Lyndy van den Barselaar is the managing director at ManpowerGroup South Africa.