5 Corporate Strategies for Advancing Women Leaders

Despite a rock-solid business case for gender diversity in the workplace, many companies still lag far behind when it comes to advancing women leaders.¹ The problem of improving gender diversity can be daunting and the question of how to get started is enough to send many seasoned executives into a tailspin.

But gender equality isn’t an impossible dream. For some companies, it’s a reality.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to speak to leaders at over 50 companies around the world through my role on the Pax Ellevate team. The companies I’ve interacted with were selected for the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund based on multiple criteria of gender leadership—representation of women on their Board of Directors, in senior management, and the presence of a woman CEO or CFO. These aren’t companies that just talk about wanting to advance women—they have actually taken action and are achieving real results.

So what’s working at these companies that are succeeding in advancing women leaders to the highest levels?

Here are five of the top strategies that corporate leaders told me are helping them make progress:

Bite sized pieces

Big, hairy long term goals are intimidating. Breaking big goals down into smaller goals over several years can feel more manageable and less overwhelming. For example, I spoke with a company that set a target of increasing the percentage of women hired into mid-level positions from 15 percent to 20 percent in year one, and then from 20 percent to 25 percent in year two. This gives the team clear benchmarks and allows them to show progress over time. Some companies also set smaller gender diversity goals for specific areas such as recruitment, promotions and leadership training at various levels of the company, then tracked performance on an ongoing basis. Many leaders also cited the EDGE program (aka “Economic Dividends for Gender Equality”) as a helpful resource for outlining a manageable gender equality road map.

Bring in a “Change Agent”

Some senior leaders viewed the need to achieve better gender diversity as a key business challenge and, like other such challenges, engaged a ‘change agent’ to reshape the strategy and results. A few companies brought in executives who had successfully revamped core businesses elsewhere in the organization to take on the new challenge. In one case, a CEO asked an executive who had just completed a successful launch of a major business unit to lead the effort to build a more diverse leadership team. This executive happened to be a man and he enthusiastically took on the gender diversity challenge the same as any other.

Sponsorship not mentorship

For many global companies, change accelerated when top leaders saw that they needed to ‘sponsor’ up-and-coming women leaders, not just ‘mentor’ them. What’s the difference between sponsorship and mentorship? Mentorship is usually seen as ‘teaching’ a junior person how to do a job. Sponsorship involves personally investing in the success of a more junior employee—making sure they gain visibility, take on big assignments, and are given the chance to prove what they can achieve to those at the most senior levels of the company. Of course,  it also means, the person being sponsored needs to deliver. Bottom line—it’s a shift from teaching to engaging and actively promoting the visibility and careers of high achieving women.

Men as champions of change

Engaging key male leaders as the drivers of change was the critical piece that helped a number of companies move forward. After all, achieving gender diversity is not about pushing men out, it’s about bringing women in. When men and women worked together, change happened. How did they find these forward-thinking male leaders? Every organization has men that understand the business case for gender diversity. It’s about seeking them out, and letting them know what they can do to be part of the solution (for more ideas, check out www.MaleChampionsofChange.com).

It comes from the top

Most importantly, make sure that senior leadership is on board. When everyone knows gender diversity matters to the CEO, change happens.

Feeling inspired? Take a page from these success stories and start advancing gender diversity at your firm today.

¹ Visit Pax Ellevate’s Gender Research page for a list of studies on the relationship between gender diversity and corporate performance.

Anne Greenwood

Anne Greenwood is Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing at Pax Ellevate Management LLC, where she is responsible for sales and marketing initiatives related to the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund. Anne has over 25 years of experience at major wealth management firms leading national businesses as well as in regional roles.  Follow Pax Ellevate on Twitter (@PaxEllevate) and LinkedIn.

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