How tackling hesitancy could solve the gender diversity challenge

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The launch of the government’s Gender Equality Roadmap this week re-emphasised the role employers have in in reducing the inequality that many women face throughout their lives. But, as Sue Jefferson writes, gender balance will not improve unless hesitant staff, senior leaders and managers overcome their fear of change.

Emotional barriers and unspoken fears in both men and women are the real reason behind the failure to meet diversity goals. Unless HR leaders help to win over hearts and minds, we’re kidding ourselves if we think any real progress can been made. Recruiting new talent isn’t necessary – existing staff need to overcome the hesitancy that prevents career progression.

There is a multitude of evidence linking company outperformance and diversity and inclusion, but there are three main hurdles holding progress back: hesitant women; risk-averse leaders, and resistant middle managers.

It is important to equip hesitant women to overcome the beliefs that prevent them from taking the next step. Too many women are guilty of working hard and doing a great job, but sitting back hoping to be recognised. Once there is a wave of confident women making their career expectations known and their achievements visible, it will be obvious to an organisation that they have a strong pipeline of female talent, wanting to progress up the corporate ladder.

There are several practices that would enable HR to be the catalyst in overcoming hesitancy.

Employees

Women’s networking forums should be formed and should focus on personal development. Discussion points to improve confidence could include: thriving with career development; mastering self-belief; building mental toughness; influencing others for action; cutting through discussion to be heard; and tackling difficult conversations.

HR teams should also expect individuals and their manager to have conversations about their career aspirations. They should start by discussing their ambitions what may be missing from their roles to achieve these. The conversation should end with a development plan which could be a project, secondment, training or shadowing. Notes should be gathered to help HR and leadership teams with succession planning and sponsoring high-potential talent.

Senior leaders

But these actions alone are not enough. The other reasons women aren’t promoted are often unspoken and based on fear: Will women upset the boardroom dynamic? Do women have the necessary mental resilience? Won’t flexible working cause issues?

If leaders are to become gender diversity advocates, HR needs to facilitate conversations to help leaders work through their concerns. When their fears are acknowledged, there is often relief. Collaborating with peers who have overcome such challenges will help leaders develop new approaches to encourage diversity and change their culture.

Middle managers

The final group that blocks gender balance is resistant middle managers, whose concerns are often unconscious. This group is the engine of an organisation, but often hamper progress because of their focus on the KPIs they have to meet, fixed processes and style of management that works to deliver these. They are hesitant to accommodate someone who thinks differently, seeing this only as a risk not an opportunity. They not only lack the skill set to enable inclusion of different points of view but they may have reached their career limit, so delivery of their objectives and retaining their power base may be their fundamental drivers.

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Removing this group’s hesitancy to change starts with a talent review conversation. Too often forgotten, middle managers have a wealth of experience to offer and developing their skills is invaluable to a business. Could they expand their technology capabilities, act as a mentor or project manage, for example? Company-wide collaboration and inclusion training will be far more productive than unconscious bias training – the latter creates minimal behaviour change at best and too often reinforces passive resistance.

Finally, as these managers are responsible for most recruitment, have them write an explanatory paragraph to the Board when they do not use the opportunity to better balance gender profile. This creates a consciousness in their own decision-making, alerts HR to any hidden process issues – for example shortlists from agencies – and brings D&I to their attention.

Encouraging gender diversity presents a great opportunity for HR to position itself as a valuable business partner to colleagues, leveraging diversity of thinking to unlock agility, productivity and outperformance. Hesitancy of HR to approach D&I differently must not be added to the hesitancy of their people.

Sue Jefferson

About Sue Jefferson

Sue Jefferson is a business outperformance consultant with a background at boardroom level with various prominent FMCG companies, most recently at McCain Foods. Now she is a board adviser, supporting companies to leverage the benefit of diversity of thinking and develop their female talent pipeline.
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