How HR Can Support Women’s Leadership

Human resources can play a vital part in championing women’s professional progression. In a new report, Odgers Berndtson offers five approaches that can help HR create fairer, more equitable organizations that perform better and have a greater talent pool to recruit from.

April 4, 2023 – Female leadership has made immense gains over the past 50 years, but there remains a significant underrepresentation of women in the executive suite and on boards of directors. Balancing work and family lives, being overlooked for promotions, working under male oriented management systems and in roles lacking the necessary flexibility means female leadership still faces difficulties in growing organically.

Overcoming these challenges therefore requires an active approach, one in which HR plays a significant role, says a new report by Odgers Berndtson authored by Ramona Kraft, principal, in Frankfurt. CHROs, HR directors, and other people leaders are in a prime position to develop environments and cultures which break down barriers and enable ways for women to excel.

“As a function, HR is critical to this effort,” said Odgers Berndtson. “A recent Gartner study said HR must develop ‘consequential accountability’ to achieve a diverse leadership bench, i.e. HR must work with business leaders to make proactive changes if they want to drive diversity and support women leaders.”

In its new report, Odgers Berndtson explores five of these approaches, looking at the most effective ways HR can promote women’s leadership within organizations:

1.Mentoring and sponsorship

Both mentors and sponsors – closely linked with one another – are indispensable in supporting women at decisive career points. “Mentors can help women broach discussions about salary and progression, challenge biases and expectations with confidence, improve self-promotion, and capitalize on strengths,” said Odgers Berndtson. “Sponsors are arguably even more important as a woman’s career progresses; while a mentor offers advice, a sponsor is an advocate and a senior leader who looks out for you. This is a huge confidence boost for women who can feel underrepresented and are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome than their male counterparts.”

Related: Women CFOs at Top Companies See Gains in First Half of 2022

While women can find mentors and sponsors on their own, organizations with dedicated programs gain proven advantages in performance and talent. A 2022 study on mentoring showed the vast majority of HR leaders found mentoring programs led to both improved organizational performance and individual development.

2. Succession planning

Through succession planning, HR can identify the next generation of leaders, assess the organization’s leadership skills gaps, and provide a means for underrepresented groups to overcome the glass ceiling. “Importantly, a structured succession plan can significantly decrease the risk of top talent leaving an organization at critical career levels,” said the Odgers Berndtson report. “This is crucial in preventing mid to senior management ‘drop off’ which sees many women exit the workforce before they’re appointed to leadership.”

Agnieszka Zajac is a partner and head of Odgers Berndtson’s Luxembourg office. With more than 15 years of executive search and talent management experiences, she focuses on recruiting business leadership at the board, executive and non-executive levels, working with clients active in industry, not-for-profit and services sectors.

In addition to the direct support they provide, women can incorporate these programs into their personal and professional goals, said the search firm. “They demonstrate the organization’s commitment to women’s careers, create a sense of value around women’s leadership and changes the culture around how the organization views women in decision-making positions,” said the report.

3. Return to work and flexible roles

Typically, from the managerial level onwards, women are more likely to be overlooked for promotion and even leave the workforce altogether. “While several factors are at play here, the most significant is the inflexibility offered in the workplace and the lack of return to work schemes,” said Odgers Berndtson.

In 2022, a study from LinkedIn found over half of women have left or are considering leaving roles due to a lack of flexibility. More than one in five also said the lack of flexibility offered by their employer hindered their career progression. At the same time, the absence of widespread return to work schemes means highly talented women who take career breaks are faced with difficulties when trying to re-enter the workplace.

While COVID-19 saw the widespread adoption of flexible working, HR leaders need to tailor this practice for women, said Odgers Berndtson. “This includes adapting roles so they can be done on a part-time or a job sharing basis, flexing positions around daily caring responsibilities and enabling career breaks.”

Adapting the workplace itself is also a vital change. “For example, at Odgers Berndtson we have introduced a menopause initiative and assist clients to develop their own policies, which helps to keep senior women leaders in roles, enhances public reputation, and widens the talent pool,” said the search firm.

4. Understanding women’s behaviors

Women are far less likely than men to self-promote, are far more likely to self-critique, and more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, said the report. “These behavioral traits do not correspond with management systems that are by and large still geared to confidence and visible self-assurance,” said Odgers Berndtson.

Adapting an organization’s performance process is fundamental in building an environment which enables women to fairly progress up the career ladder. “For HR, this often means training managers in supportive encouragement, drawing out a person’s strengths and having non-judgmental discussions around imposter syndrome, as well as redefining appraisals to focus on output and tangible achievements,” said the report.

5. Promote from within

For over-stretched HR teams, external recruitment can be the default approach for widening their pool of potential women leaders. While a critical part of ensuring gender diversity in leadership teams, it’s often solely relied upon, whereas HR should focus on both external recruitment and internal progression.

“Tied closely to succession planning, promoting internally demonstrates to employees the organization values women in leadership roles and builds a culture of inclusion and belonging,” said Odgers Berndtson. “This is crucial for retention. Organizations that don’t meaningfully and visibly support diverse career advancement are likely to see any new female leadership hires leave within the first month. Externally appointing and internally promoting women should therefore be used in tandem.”

Developing mentoring and sponsoring programs, succession planning, creating flexible roles and changing management dynamics will all drive internal promotion for women. “We also know that what gets measured gets done and so making retention and promotion of women part of the performance criteria for managers and executives is essential in increasing the number of women leaders,” said Odgers Berndtson.

Related: Women Still Lag on Boards and in the Executive Suite

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media


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