How to build a fairer leadership pipeline for everyone 

Diverse Modern Office: Black Businesswoman

Sarah Danzl discusses how organisations can create more equitable leadership opportunities 

Organisations have made some progress in building more representative boards and C-suites, with the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Co finding that it’s at the highest level since the report began. Yet, we still have a vacuum at the lower rungs of the career ladder, notably in middle management and director roles. For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, 87 women were promoted (73 for women from minority ethnic backgrounds).  

“Equality is leaving the door open for anyone who has the means to approach it; equity is ensuring there is a pathway to that door for those who need it” 

Business and HR leaders are well aware of the need for more equitable promotion and career development practices – and the benefits of this for company growth. Having more females on the board is correlated with better monitoring and oversight, improved financial performance, de-risking (fewer lawsuits and scandals), and boosted ESG (environment, social and governance factors). This has created a laser focus on achieving parity in the boardroom, with less heed paid to those still climbing the career ladder.  

Create opportunity for many 

But the truth remains that the next generation of the C-suite will continue to be primarily white and male unless we begin developing women at all career stages. Organisations need to prioritise lasting, equitable leadership pipelines, for as many people, from as many different genders and backgrounds as possible. It’s a lot easier for many working together to break the glass ceiling than just one woman with a sledgehammer.  

With that in mind, what are some practical steps you can implement today to create more opportunities for females looking for promotion and growth? 

A personal approach to growth 

First, we must hone in on the nuances of what’s happening now among DIB (diversity, inclusion and belonging) pioneers. Many DIB efforts are falling flat because they are solving the wrong equations. The prevailing thought is that addressing hiring biases, creating diversity, inclusion and belonging targets, and surveying employees to understand unique workplace experiences, will create a more equitable workplace. But equity is more personal than that.  

As Caroline Belden highlights in the blog The Inclusion Solution: “Equality is leaving the door open for anyone who has the means to approach it; equity is ensuring there is a pathway to that door for those who need it.”  

Although DIB has become a boardroom agenda item, equity (creating the acronym DIEB) is harder to foster since it requires an individualised approach. Equity doesn’t simply level the playing field but recognises that each individual and group has different circumstances. Opportunities and resources, therefore, are tailored to each group instead of a mass-market DIB approach.  

Unique barriers for women 

Looking at females specifically, the truth is that we want to grow our skills and careers. Women are more ambitious than ever and we need our workplaces to support us in balancing our work and other commitments such as caregiving (a responsibility that tends to impact women disproportionately) and the need for mental wellness (as women are more prone to burn-out).  

Systemic barriers to our leadership growth affect us from outside and within our organisations. There is a growing understanding that women carry a higher mental load within their households.  

This is also true within some workplaces where women are more likely to do ‘office housework’ which is linked to lower promotability. Plus there are the aforementioned caregiver tasks (also known as unpaid labour), with women doing a higher proportion of household management, childcare and parental support.  

An holistic view of skills 

Leadership development approaches need to account for this. First, the ability to switch between office and homelife tasks, juggling multiple demands and likely working under pressure and empathy and emotional intelligence is a clear strength in a manager.  

Taking an holistic approach to assessing someone’s suitability for a promotion can create a stronger cohort of managers as a whole – and this applies to everyone, from all backgrounds.  

In practice, allowing someone to record all their experiences and skills will unlock this. It will also help you uncover hidden skills. An employee might have developed public speaking and presentation skills through a local debating group, for example, or teaching skills via volunteering with schools. A degree of coaching may be required here to help employees understand how their lived experiences are translating into job-applicable skills.  

Provide accessible and flexible learning 

Offering a range of learning resources can make it much more accessible and manageable, especially if employees don’t have to travel to a location or miss work to attend a live seminar. Finances also need to be considered here, since on-site training can be exclusionary to those who cannot afford time off or travel costs.  

Given the juggling act already occurring across your workplace, offering modular, bite-sized learning that people can complete in their own time can lead to more consistency with learning. Consistent actions over time will lead to greater gains and successes long term.  

Confidence through validation 

Virtual and hybrid working options give employees greater flexibility and autonomy over their workday, and the same applies to online learning opportunities. Not all virtual learning is equal, however, as you cannot expect someone to confidently lead a team or manage a project by simply reading a book about it or listening to a podcast.  

There has to be a hands-on element to training that gives individuals the safe space to practise their new skills, understand how a skill applies to a role and provide confidence that they can perform on the job.  

This is critically important for women, as it’s well-known that women will only apply to a role (especially senior positions) when they are 100% qualified, compared to 60% for men. Offering opportunities to learn, practise and validate skills through hands-on experiences will help to plug this confidence gap and encourage more women to apply for senior roles.  

This skill validation can help address a potential bias against female promotions, in that, within some workplaces women do need to show more skills and credentials to be considered for a role.  

Social conditioning also means women can feel less deserving of career progression compared to men. You can coach women to overcome this, but for the greatest impact, provide evidence that they are qualified and ready for a step up the career ladder.  

Skills-based needs trust 

This segues well into a growing transformation happening in some organisations – the skills-based shift. This movement, known as the skills-based organisation, looks at skills as the main decider in hiring, mobilising, and promoting people.  

Ultimately, it’s a step in the right direction, opening up more opportunities for people from different backgrounds and removing unconscious biases from workforce decisions. It makes the workplace far more equitable since individual skills are what influence someone’s career opportunities, empowering them to unlock greater growth through targeted skill development.  

A sales rep looking to progress to director can build skills in strategy, team leadership and internal stakeholder communications, that puts them on the road towards promotion.  

Of course, for skills to become the de facto way that opportunities are offered, there must be trust that the data powering workforce decisions is highly accurate and timely. Again, skill validation comes in as a solution, proving that someone’s learning is translating into job-ready skills. Practical testing (as close to job-based scenarios as possible) or on-the-job experiences will build confidence among employees and hiring managers.  

We can do more 

We are on the path towards more equitable workplaces but more must be done to achieve gender parity in this decade. Everyone deserves a fulfilling career, no matter what level of the career ladder they want to reach. It is our job, as leaders and allies, to ensure every individual has the tools they need to complete the climb.  

Sarah Danzl is CMO of Skillable 


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