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Companies Are Failing Women Leaders. Here's What We Can Do.

For many companies, women’s presence (or lack of) in leadership and decision-making roles is a canary in a coalmine. In a healthy, thriving organization, women are more likely to be present at all organizational levels and have a significant voice. Study upon study shows that companies with a high percentage of women leaders are typically much more profitable (often by 15% or more) and yield a higher return on stocks.

We won’t get into why women-centric organizations tend to succeed (among the reasons is diversity of thought and perspectives). Just know that it’s almost indisputable that female leadership is tied to organizational success. Instead, we’re going to focus on how your company can cultivate its next batch of women leaders.

Now, we know what you might be thinking: “The answer is simple! Hire more women and invest in training.”

While that can get you partway to a solution, it most likely won’t get you all the way. Companies are already throwing money at women-focused diversity/leadership training (some $8 billion by Fortune 500 companies alone) AND companies already spend an average of $1,308 per year on general learning and development. But these initiatives haven’t moved the needle much. Women still only occupy about 15% of top leadership roles (a figure that has remained much the same for the past 15 years).

So, what’s the alternative?

We (as a leadership performance company) have found that a real difference is usually only achieved when a company invests in highly targeted programs that include a community of women, is rooted in brain science, and helps address individual needs.

Why Mixed-Gender Training Fails

When it comes to leadership training, organizations often throw its entire leadership team into a room and expect everyone to gain the same skills. Sounds equitable, right? Separating women and men shows bias, doesn’t it?

Not exactly.

This approach to leadership training is largely ineffective for several reasons. For one, workplace challenges are different for women than they are for men. By and large, women are more likely to struggle with issues relating to confidence, impostor syndrome, or being heard. Sometimes, they fear retaliation for taking a strong stance or speaking out “too much” during meetings (men are rarely referred to as “bossy” or “bitchy,” but women often have to endure those harmful labels). It’s a good idea to address these challenges with women leaders, and to effectively do that, the genders must be separated.

Mixed-gender leadership training is not the best approach for your women leaders.

Furthermore, women are far less likely to speak out in a candid, forthcoming way if men are in the room without the right guidance and support advancing in their career. We have witnessed how only a handful of men (even the loveliest of men) in a group of mostly women can dominate the conversation and shut down female contributors without even realizing it — and often not by design. Therefore, looking for a female only program is helpful — to give a safe space to explore and learn new skills. It is not about changing the men…rather giving women the new skills they need.

Another important reason to invest in separate leadership training for women is because of differences in neurology. To put it simply, men and women’s brains are typically “wired” differently. They employ different areas of the brain, which can affect both their perspectives and their actions. In general, female brains are more active in a wider variety of areas, and they can (according to a study discussed by Forbes) have 30% more neurons firing at any given time than men do. Because of neurological differences, women typically have stronger empathy, self-control, intuition, and tendencies to collaborate.

Providing separate training/growth opportunities for your leaders based on gender is a start, but let’s take it a step further.

Here are four ways to cultivate the promising female leaders in your organization:

1. Emphasize Coaching

While training often goes through the motions of teaching news skills or procedures to a group of people, coaching is developmental-focused. Coaching emphasizes critical thinking, creating lasting personal change, and cultivating individual strengths and proclivities. It is about development and growth — from the inside out.

While there is certainly a place for training, most leaders benefit from personalized coaching. While your organization might choose to provide coaching for all its female leaders, it is more likely to see a return on investment by concentrating on its most promising female leaders. These are the women who are passionate and motivated. They are the leaders who are constantly seeking to better themselves and are willing to dive in and do whatever it takes to improve and take their careers to the next level.

When working with female leaders through our In HER Element program, we emphasize both one-on-one coaching and group sessions through an 8-month cohort program. While coaching programs vary, we’ve found that this model allows us to take a deep dive into personal development and facilitate a path forward for significant and sustainable change.

2. Create Community

Individual coaching can be helpful, of course, but real magic is possible when facilitating a workplace community of female leaders. Since women are (according to brain science!) natural collaborators, it is helpful to discuss common leadership issues and potential solutions in a group setting. Women can bounce ideas off each other, strategize collectively, and concurrently develop leadership skills. A group setting can also be an important platform for creating long-lasting relationships and a stronger sense of belonging. In short, this style of coaching is constructive and empowering.

3. Incorporate Neuroscience

Understanding one’s brain is a powerful thing. If you’re able to tie your thoughts or reactions back to neurology, it gives you both a measure of control and the language to discuss what you’re feeling or thinking (“My limbic system is firing on all cylinders today! Maybe I need to step away for a while.”). Neuroscience also enables us to recognize patterns that drive decision making. We can then determine which patterns help or hinder us, and that can lead to better emotional control, stronger collaboration, and the ability to facilitate change.

Understanding your brain’s patterns and which ones hinder you is crucial for growth.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of those words that can sound a bit…squishy. But, when applied through a coaching lens, it becomes a powerful tool. Mindfulness practices can help improve attention, self-regulation, cognition, and performance. They can also play an important role in reducing anxiety or stress. Mindfulness doesn’t have to take the form of yoga or meditation (though it could!) but can be easily incorporated into everyday work practices and routines. Mindfulness is really thinking about our thinking — then deciding if our thinking in the moment will best serve us. The ability to increase our effectiveness in the moment is paramount!

Here’s the bottom line: Investing in female leaders is a no-brainer, but the approach matters! It is worth it for organizations to fund meaningful leadership programs for women, rather than throw money at a few universal, mixed-gender training sessions. When considering how to develop your organization’s promising women leaders, it’s a good idea to find a coaching program that emphasizes both individual and collective achievements, and has a plan for creating sustainable change. Remember, the success of a company’s female leadership is often a reflection of the company, as a whole. It is time to invest strategically in our women leaders.

If you’d like more information on The Disruptive Element’s In HER Element program for female leaders, please visit our website.) and yield a higher return on stocks.


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