Organizations often miss the mark in developing women as leaders, said Tammy Heermann, senior vice president for leadership transformation at Lee Hecht Harrison in Toronto. She spoke about “gender truths” during a concurrent session at the HR People + Strategy Annual Conference on April 25.
They miss the mark, she said, because:
Women Hit Obstacles in Career Paths
In most sectors, women are joining organizations in about the same number of men and many are advancing to first-line manager roles. However, the leadership gap widens significantly at the senior level, Heermann said.
One company working to overcome this challenge is Saputo, a global dairy manufacturer with 12,500 employees. The company is trying to build internal leadership development to meet its board’s challenge to develop more women into senior-level positions, according to its director of talent management, Kim Lesser, who also spoke at the concurrent session.
The company, based in Montreal, was founded by an Italian immigrant family in 1954, when they started making cheese in their bathtub and selling the cheese to neighbors. Today, about 76 percent of its employees are men, with plant operations running 24/7 throughout the year.
Men and women are advancing into leadership positions at about the same rate (men at 6.4 percent; women at 6.8 percent), but most of the women work in areas such as marketing and human resources. The number of women leaders in the company’s manufacturing division is low.
And while the company trains employees in leadership in the early stages of their career at Saputo, the number of its employees ready to take on director-level positions and higher is quite low, Lesser said.
The company is in the early stages of its initiative, which includes tapping male and female employees who show high potential for leadership to attend special workshops—although Saputo purposely does not link the initiative to succession planning to avoid creating expectations about future roles.
“We want to develop leadership skills” beyond being “just a manager of people,” Lesser said, noting that the number of people ready to assume director-level positions and higher is low.
In the new initiative, high-potential men and women attend gender-segregated workshops, then a joint workshop. A third workshop for men and women will deal with developing strategic leadership skills. While 95 percent of the content for the first workshop was the same for both groups, the one for women added a focus on confidence-building and how women’s negative self-talk and insecurities about advancement can hold them back—a conversation they may not have had if men were in the same workshop, Lesser said.
Future leadership initiatives at Saputo, Lesser said, will include formalizing a diversity strategy and policy that ties in leadership development for men and women. It also plans to integrate leadership training into its succession planning.
Women can be their own worst enemies, Heermann said. In addition to self-doubt about their skills holding them back from opportunities, other behavior blocking their way includes:
Women require a different type of support for their development, according to Heermann. One-on-one coaching is particularly effective in elevating women for leadership opportunities because it can help alleviate self-doubt about their skills and preparedness for leadership, she said.
However, moving women into more senior roles “is more of an organizational culture challenge than it is a training challenge,” she noted in her paper.
“You can hire and promote more women to impact numbers in the short term. But creating a workplace that … makes leadership desirable for women and that offers flexibility during key age and stage periods is a whole other question.”
She recommended that organizations:
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