"There just aren't that many women qualified to sit in the boardroom."
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That's the most common excuse given by executives when asked about the gender disparity in the C-suite and the boardroom. That may have been true at one point, but in 2017 that excuse no longer holds water.
The truth is an expansive pool of qualified women ready to step into top corporate roles exists, according to research from global recruitment firm Harvey Nash and the HKU Business School of the University of Hong Kong.
Harvey Nash and HKU jointly run a board preparedness program called the Women's Directorship Programme (WDP), which aims "to tackle the existing gender diversity imbalance in boardrooms" through lectures, interactive sessions, and leadership exercises that help women meet the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder.
"The program offers answers to the worldwide business community's call to tackle the existing gender imbalance in boardrooms," says Kirti Lad, director of executive search at Harvey Nash APAC. "It has helped to produce a pool of board-ready female leaders ready to step up and create change in the business community and empowered the next generation of women leaders to gain the confidence and skills needed to secure a board position."
5 Steps to Help Female Executives Prepare for the C-Suite
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There are a number of steps women can take to prepare for a seat at the executive table. Based on the feedback from business leaders in the WDP, Lad identifies five key areas for women to focus on to ensure they are prepared for top positions: coaching, mentoring, sponsorship, networking, and training.
Here, Lad explains the importance of each:
Coaching can be used to develop a particular skill set or to support career development. It serves to develop and cultivate self-awareness to enhance leadership. Coaching is often focused on behaviors and managing change.
Mentoring can be completed formally through an internal program or informally through personal networks. There is also huge value in acting as a mentor for others in order to share knowledge and develop future leaders.
Sponsorship cannot be developed; it is a relationship that has to be earned. This is all about the value of the relationships a person makes. In order to be sponsored, women have to be known. Sponsors are the gateways to new opportunities. Research from the Centre for Work-Life Policy found that a sponsor can [make professionals more likely to negotiate raises and ask for stretch assignments].
Networking is essential to any top executive in order to build and exert influence. In addition to internal networking, women need to be sure to look beyond and develop contacts with people from outside their industry or field.
Training and continuous learning and development are key to any executive career. Investment in honing and developing new and pre-existing skills is essential. Both internal and external training are beneficial.
How Companies Can Improve Executive Diversity
Companies seeking balanced and diverse C-suites must consciously implement strategies from the top down in order to achieve the goal. Lad recommends that companies take the following actions:
Promoting family-friendly work environments: "Offer flexible work, change overtime rules to discourage long working hours, and encourage men to take paternity leave."
Mapping and identifying high-potential women: "[Do so] both within the business and externally to support a strong female talent pipeline."
Changing the business culture: "Welcome women to after-work drinks and other social activities. Make sure returning mothers feel welcome and supported in their roles. Establish and enforce positive behaviors toward women in the workplace."
Engaging more male and female champions of change: "Support men and women who recognize diversity as an issue. Encourage them to act as sponsors and mentors for women within the business."
Changing the hiring model: "Create talent management systems that focus on performance instead of purely measuring experience in years."
Changing the interview process and selection model: "Ensure interview panels consist of at least one senior woman. Hold unconscious bias training to ensure teams are aware of their decision-making processes."
Creating internal mentoring programs: "Use existing company role models to promote diversity initiatives and support talent development."
Managing unconscious bias that exists during the hiring and promotion processes: "A top-down approach, tailored training, diverse hiring process, and fair talent management process are some of the methods that can be used to eliminate unconscious bias and promote a more inclusive corporate culture."
"These steps can have a real impact," Lad says. "Companies like IBM, GE, Pepsi, Goldman Sachs, [and others] have all invested in diversity programs and seen real results in the numbers of women that are moving through their companies into senior roles."
Companies that make the effort to diversify their executive leadership will reap benefits in the form of new ideas and approaches to problems.
"Boards made up of members from the same small network can often lead to groupthink, where those in the group come from the same background, share the same viewpoint, and are happy with the status quo," Lad says. "A certain level of tension or conflict in a boardroom helps to encourage varied approaches and often leads to boards being more agile and aware of customer issues."
If that's not convincing enough, Lad provides a few statistics that might change your mind.
"According to figures from Credit Suisse, the share prices of companies with market capital greater than $10 billion that had female directors outperformed those without by 26 percent across seven years," she says. "For small to mid-size companies, the stocks of companies with female directors on their boards outperformed others by 17 percent over the same period, proving the existing gender imbalances are costing firms money."