The opening paragraph of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post on women doctors could easily apply to women learning leaders. Or women who are business leaders in any area. It highlights the reasons women excel as medical professional, frequently outperforming male peers … and then sums up with the predictable comment about how the professions treats them as if they don’t belong in the role.

The Learning Guild is dedicating a daylong co-located event at our upcoming learning leaders conference, Learning 2023, to tackling this issue. The solutions-focused agenda will address some of the issues that Dr. Shirlene Obuobi, the author of the op-ed, mentions experiencing in the medical field: Blatant sexism and discrimination, microaggressions, unsolicited “advice,” and more.

Diversifying leadership is urgent

Despite lip service in recent years to advancing women and BIPOC employees into positions of leadership, little progress has been made. Prior to the pandemic small gains could be identified but in many areas DEI efforts have backslid rather than continuing to advance or even hold steady.

Women and BIPOC leaders are leaving

“Across the board, women and minority leaders are ready to leave their companies at significantly higher rates than men and non-minority peers,” according to DDI’s 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report.

Cultural issues in their organizations play a significant role in these leaders’ decisions to leave: Nearly two-thirds of the women and BIPOC leaders who lacked trust in their corporate leaders also believed that they needed to leave the company to advance their careers. Only 27% of leaders who trusted their organization’s senior leadership felt that way.

Gender pay gap persists

One discouraging factor in the dearth of female and BIPOC leadership is that in the past 20 years the gender pay gap has barely budged, according to Pew Research.

While some may dismiss this as a result of women taking time off when they have children, there’s a lot more to the story. “Employed mothers earn about the same as similarly educated women without children at home; both groups earn less than fathers,” Pew found.

Where there is a “penalty” for being a mom, other factors are also in play: “While employed mothers overall appear to earn less than employed women without children at home, the gap is driven mainly by differences in educational attainment between the two groups. Among women with similar levels of education, there is little gap in the earnings of mothers and non-mothers. However, fathers earn more than other workers, including other men without children at home, regardless of education level.”

This is due to a “wage premium” for fathers—which has increased over the past 30 years.

What can L&D leaders do?

Suggested solutions often focus on organizational culture, which is an area where learning leaders can have some influence.

“More sustained progress in closing the pay gap may depend on deeper changes in societal and cultural norms and in workplace flexibility that affect how men and women balance their careers and family lives,” Pew said.

OECD delved deeper into the causes of pay gaps, finding that, “On average, 'sticky floors' related to social norms, gender stereotyping, and discrimination account for 40% of the gender wage gap, while the 'glass ceiling' related to the motherhood penalty accounts for around 60%.”

Combat bias

Many barriers that women and BIPOC leaders face are invisible. Biases, whether unconscious or conscious, may result in women and BIPOC candidates being denied promotions or jobs—without their or anyone else’s awareness.

“Unconscious biases continue to permeate the workplace, with only 41% of male managers agreeing that their organizations’ leadership believes that women with children are just as dedicated to their jobs as women without children. The attributes perceived as critical for leadership also remain gendered—men are expected to be results oriented, and women, people oriented,” according to a recent IBM Institute for Business Value study on women in leadership.

Training is one antidote to bias, as are clear and uniform processes for identifying and evaluating candidates, whether internal or external, for roles and promotions.

Learning leaders, often in partnership with HR professionals, can create and administer anti-bias training, as well as developing checklists and processes—and training managers at all levels on how to use them. L&D teams can subtly combat bias by ensuring that all training materials, on any topic, are inclusive and diverse in their language, imagery, and examples used. These measures can influence organizational culture and change the behavior of individual employees—and managers—at all levels.

Flexibility & modern leadership

A key reason women are leaving jobs at all levels, and especially demanding leadership roles, is the lack of workplace flexibility; the resulting burnout is a particularly compelling factor among younger workers. DDI says that “Seventy percent of leaders under age 35 report feeling used up at the end of every day, with rates even higher among women and minorities.”

DDI attributes this high level of burnout to the extra caretaking responsibilities that many women shoulder—along with many young leaders’ expectations: “There may be unique pressure for leaders 35 and under to feel they have to achieve perfection. Compared to their older peers, our data showed that these younger leaders are more fearful of revealing personal flaws, sharing something that could be used against them, and being perceived as weak or incompetent.”

This is where workplace flexibility, empathetic and concerned leadership, and an inclusive and trust-based culture can help. Organizations with these features are more likely to retain women and BIPOC leaders and future leaders, as they increase workers’ trust in the organization. As a positive note, the IBM report finds that more companies are offering flexible work hours—59% in 2023 vs. 48% in 2019.

While L&D leaders may not be able to change policy, they can educate HR and corporate leaders in the skills and behaviors that build trust and improve communication between managers and workers and on the importance of flexible policies that support work–life balance.

Join us to learn more!

Registration is open for Learning 2023, the learning leaders conference—and for “Bridging the Gender Gap in Leadership,” a full-day co-located event. Join us to deepen your knowledge, hone your leadership skills, and collaborate with other learning leaders to find solutions to your DEI and other leadership challenges.

And, don’t miss the summer Learning Leaders Online Forum, July 25–27, where you can network virtually with other learning leaders and participate in a variety of interactive sessions, micro-master classes, and participate in collaborative case studies.