Despite perceived progress toward workplace equity, women today continue to face microaggressions and biases that hold them back from progressing to more senior positions in their respective fields. Women of any age or position are likely to be assumed to be more junior if there is a man in the room, for example. So what can we, as learning and development professionals, do to counteract these realities? We know that training solutions do not come in a one-size-fits-all model that will suddenly result in organizational culture change.

Interestingly, the bottleneck to career progression often begins at the very start of a woman’s career. In the transition from entry-level positions to first-tier managers, 87 women for every 100 men were promoted last year. What's worse, only one in four C-suite positions is held by a woman—and only one in 20 is held by a woman of color. These are general statistics that showcase the need for a shift in the mindset of those in charge of hiring, promotion, and overall professional development—a shift that would create a healthy pipeline of women poised to fill leadership roles as they open up.

The news is not all bleak

There has, however, been some progress that merits recognition. A special report released by the IBM Institute for Business Value indicates that women's representation in the C-suite and board rooms is up 12% this year. The report also highlights that organizations identified as gender equity leaders report 19% higher revenue growth.

How leaders can remove barriers and foster progress

Building on leadership commitments and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategic plans that prioritize gender parity, here are some ways that executive teams and learning leaders can make good on their plans for progress:

1. Measure, benchmark, and analyze your data

Lack of prioritizing diversity metrics and goals, as well as a lack of managerial and human resources (HR) accountability in achieving those goals, are leaving companies at major risk of completely disenfranchising women and other marginalized groups. According to McKinsey & Company's Women in the Workplace 2022 report, 59% of Black women leaders want to be top executives, compared with 49% of women leaders overall. However, one in three believe they have been passed over for either their race, their gender, or both.

How can we do better? Start by asking employees how they feel in their role, and cross-reference that with how they self-identify, anonymously. Are they experiencing barriers to progression? Do they feel they are receiving fair feedback from their managers? You can then build on that assessment by running talent velocity analyses, pay gap studies, and industry benchmarking to set realistic and achievable goals.

2. Reward involvement in inclusion efforts through performance measurement standards

Involvement in inclusion efforts is often considered extra-curricular and thus not rewarded, so attempting to foster male allyship is considered a hobby. As an alternative, HR policies can be adjusted to ask managers to report on overall team involvement with DEI efforts in the performance review process.

Learning leaders can collaborate with HR to offer professional development training that will position managers to consider potential biases as they review their team. We know that adults learn best in real time. Consider implementing digital nudges or other training interventions directly before the performance reviews happen at your organization. Even a short 30-second reminder can help mitigate bias and remind leaders that their team's involvement in employee resource groups (ERGs), DEI committees, or other extra-work activities should be factored into their overall performance evaluations.

While not every company can budget to compensate employees for their time invested in ERG work, many organizations are including participation in ERGs as a core part of their objectives and key results (OKRs). If learning leaders and executives are willing to collaborate with HR and tie in bonuses or other reward opportunities for employees who participate in creating a more gender-equal environment, then it may be possible to accelerate the timeline on achieving parity.

ERGs, for example, bring companies a lot of value. They create a sense of belonging for their respective demographics, host leadership events, create learning and development opportunities, and can further DEI commitments set out by senior leaders. From an external perspective, they enable communications teams to share their activities with customers and communities, creating brand goodwill and contributing to top talent employment interest.

Consider implementing ERG workshops in partnership with your women’s ERGs. Offer leadership sessions, invite guest speakers to provide thought leadership, or create opportunities for informal knowledge sharing—all of which can foster female allyship and overall inclusion and belonging.

3. Implement leadership development programs

Investing in women’s leadership programs has long-lasting benefits—not only removing barriers for women but also contributing to the overall success of an organization. It cultivates a more inclusive culture overall, offsetting some of the historical barriers and recognizing that there might be more limited opportunities for women to develop leadership skills organically.

Male leaders and potential leaders often create mentor and sponsor relationships through work social events or similar interests that then develop into learning opportunities through example. Conversely, these relationships amongst women don’t naturally forge as often, either because of a simple lack of representation or the Queen Bee phenomenon (where women leaders distance themselves from more junior female colleagues), which unfortunately still does exist in some workplace cultures, according to the British Psychological Society.

To further the case for the importance of leadership programs, a study by the Institute for Leadership Management found that half of female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers compared with less than a third of male respondents, so clearly there is a need for upskilling—an area where learning leaders can shine.

Implementation of a modular, long-term (6–12 month) women’s leadership program is an excellent way to develop a cohort of women who grow together, seeing support from their organization and executive sponsors.

Learning leaders can take a few simple steps to ensure successful leadership development programs.

  • First, consider the cohort of women you would like to support. For example, if the glass ceiling starts at middle management, perhaps that is a good place to start.
  • Second, not all content is relevant to every woman throughout their career. If the idea is to support women throughout your organization, consider creating cohorts based on career-level tiers, and select content sessions that can support where women are in their career journey. Doing this not only supports upskilling but also creates a network amongst peers as an added benefit.
  • Lastly, it is very important to have executive sponsorship and include male allies in sessions that support the progression of women.

4. Require manager training on recruitment, work allocation, and fair feedback

Every person who is either responsible for hiring or a people manager should undergo training. First, unconscious bias training, if the whole team has not done that already. In addition, learning leaders should ensure that managers receive training and tools and tips on how to be an inclusive manager and treat their team with equity in mind—not necessarily equality.

Beyond the foundational learning with regard to understanding bias and how that affects the ability to manage teams equitably, most middle-tier managers are at a loss as to exactly what their company expects from them—and how they are supposed to meet those expectations.

Let's start with hiring. While it is often HR’s responsibility to manage the initial screening of a candidate pool, oftentimes frontline managers or middle managers create a set of criteria for who they would like to see in the role. Criteria such as a minimum of 10 years in a senior leadership position are intrinsically exclusionary if women have historically not been promoted as fast as men, and are thus less likely to have been recognized at that level within their company.

Consider training managers on inclusive recruitment and inclusive interviews to provide them with the skills to focus job posts on skill-based criteria and recognize the affinity, confirmation, and performance biases, among others, that find their way into many corporate interviews.

The same goes for work allocation and fair feedback. Women face stereotyping and, especially if they are also parents, are often overlooked for role-stretch opportunities, as their managers decide for them that they would not be interested, given their responsibilities at home.

Women also receive negative feedback more often than men—comments such as "Sylvie seems to shrink around clients and needs more confidence" while "Max needs to develop his natural ability to work with clients."

Manager learning and development training can, and should, provide practical guidance on how to counteract bias that will leave mangers feeling more up to the task and with a clear line of sight on what is expected of them.

Advancing women advances the bottom line

Ultimately, organizations that are not succeeding in hiring, retaining, and promoting women experience a lack of diversity and representation of perspectives, ideas, skills, etc. at the table. The consequences of this extend beyond simply doing the right thing. They affect an organization's performance and bottom line.