Helen Bailey: The secret to supporting women in the workplace – Looking beyond the numbers

You only have to take a look at the news in recent months to see that the topic of increasing women on boards continues to be the source of much debate.

According to the latest reports, many of the top organisations in the UK are close to reaching the required 25 percent female representation targets. But are we too focused on this need to meet quotas and in doing so, are we missing the point; the fact that businesses actually do better when there are more women in leadership and management positions.

The reality is that, far from being a numbers game, there are real business benefits to be gained from more balanced boards, the type that make a tangible difference to the bottom line. If we delve into this point further, we find that there isn’t just the issue of recruiting these women into the business in the first place; there is an even bigger challenge of retaining them once they are there.  There are many well-documented practices that can support retention, but it can often be difficult to know which mix of approaches will work best.

So what can be done to maximise engagement, motivation, productivity and retention of women in the workplace. I believe that embracing the concept of ‘leading as a host’ is a key approach that can help achieve this outcome.

Firstly, it needs to be acknowledged that we don’t simply need more women, but more of what women bring to these environments – nurturing, energy, intuition, gentle wisdom, listening and more. That’s not to say that men can’t do these as well, as some do them very well, but these things are all stereotypically, and very generally, more natural traits of women.

Male and female leadership may be considered to have generally different traits; male leadership may be seen as more ‘heroic’, with a focus on expertise, telling people what to do and having all the answers, while female leadership may be seen as more valuing of diversity, understanding and building on strengths, stepping back, drawing out answers from others, nurturing talent, growth, not needing to have all the answers and inclusion.

The big question that needs answering is ‘what prevails in our organisation?’ Note to the reader: this may be very different to what the organisation is saying it wants, but what is really happening in practice? Consider key factors such as what gets valued? What are the behaviours? How do we support both men and women to be themselves, bringing who they are into their work knowing it will be valued, respected and listened to?

Research has found that organisations that focus on engagement with leaders/managers and employees experience greater success than those who simply lead. The art of hosting is becoming a crucial aspect of business and an important skill that needs to be learnt. Understanding the different roles associated with being a Host Leader are important to tackling some of the core issues that could be stifling female talent in an organisation. Let’s explore some of the roles of a ‘Host’ and why HR professionals need to move in and out of them in order to drive forward change in the organisation:

  • The Initiator – Ask yourself what are the ‘hopes dreams and intentions’ – what do we want to achieve? What’s the bigger picture with this? What’s the business case? And then as the Initiator, what are the next small steps? Who needs to be involved? This is also about listening to what’s being called for next
  • The Inviter – When looking at recruitment in particular, ask yourself what are we inviting people in to? How attractive and compelling is it? By understanding what you are inviting people to, you’ll have a better idea of what needs to change to get the results and reactions you want from the right people
  • The Connector – This role is vital for any HR professional because it is about really connecting with each person, understanding them and their strengths and how we can use them in the business. This is about real engagement with the individual so that their full potential is realised, not only by you, but by the organisation too
  • The Gatekeeper – What rituals and routines exist in your organisation that are maybe supporting or working against diversity/women? A recent comment for example, was about the ‘laddish’ culture that still exists some places. In this instance it was about seating arrangements in a meeting ‘we’ll sit together, you sit there’. As the Gatekeeper, you might need to close the gate on certain routines and rituals that are not serving the overall challenge

Getting women to rise to the challenge

There always seems to be much talk about the barriers to women breaking through that tough glass ceiling and the picture portrayed is of women kicking and screaming to get through, but unable to reach the position, respect or recognition that they so clearly strive for.

While this is true in many cases, there are many women who have simply retreated from the entire race, after becoming disheartened and discouraged by what they’ve seen happen to others. They’ve lost that drive to push forward and instead, choose to remain in a ‘safer’ position lower down in the organisation.

This highlights that one of the biggest challenge for any HR professional looking to better support its female workforce is actually a cultural one. It seems many women have seen what leadership takes and how it’s done and they don’t want it or like it.

Getting women to WANT to progress in the first place is a much bigger issue than simply facilitating growth and development for those who already strive for it. It’s about creating the conditions for a different way of leading. While this article has only touched lightly on the importance of host leadership, hopefully it has provided an insight into how to tackle the issues facing the progression of women and female qualities in your organisation. I believe that the varying roles of host leadership can certainly help connect with more women and help drive them forwards to achieving their true potential.

About Helen Bailey

Helen is Managing Director and Head of Coaching at North West coaching and change company PINNA Ltd. Helen comes from a highly successful career as a Senior Manager with The Royal Bank of Scotland Group. She pursued her interest in performance improvement through coaching, undertaking a coaching qualification and now works with a wide range of organisations in the public and private sector, facilitating coaching and leadership development programmes and coaching directors and managers. Helen works collaboratively with clients to understand their challenges and identify and implement solutions to bring about change. 2010 saw Helen complete the next stage of her own personal development, achieving a distinction in a Masters degree in Developing Professional Practice where her research interest was collaboration.

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  1. My first reaction, as a middle-aged man, is that there was a time when it would have been worth my career to point out that there are any differences between men and women that are relevant to the workplace. (Look at what happened to Larry Summers at Harvard for suggesting that it might be interesting to research whether there is a difference in mathematical ability between males and females.) You will find a lot of anger out there over this sort of thing; even if most people don’t express it openly, and even if it is not the fault of the individual woman, it is something that a woman will have to deal with. I note that the list of traits in “male leadership” and “female leadership” sounds a lot like “woman good, man bad.”

    I suggest also that the idea that many women “retreat” from the corporate ladder is a bit of a misnomer. I would suggest that “go elsewhere” would be a better term. The list of feminine qualities that is given in the article applies very well to raising a family and many women find greater fulfillment there. Let us also remember that raising a family is much more important than anything in the corporate world; if we do not raise the next generation properly, nothing else we do really matter.

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