Recently while reading an e-newsletter from a professional organization, I came across yet another article about a mentoring program for women in the workplace. Although the article itself was useful, I found myself upset, not by the content, but by the underlying mindset and approach.

For more than 20 years, organizations have been implementing mentoring programs to support women and people of color in their ability to succeed in the workplace. Yet it is still quite clear that women of color, white women, and men of color have not attained the level of success of their white male counterparts. With all the effort, you would think we would be doing better by now. And although women and people of color have had some success moving into more senior leadership roles, we are far from having equity in the workplace.

The perils of misdiagnosis

The real issue is that we continue to misdiagnose the problem, which leads us to use programs and approaches that only address a small part of the challenge. You can't stop a boulder with a pea shooter, and in many ways that is what we have been doing as organizations have worked to address the women and people of color problem. Although I'm focusing here specifically on the question of systemic barriers for white women and women of color, much of the same could be said about the barriers that men of color experience as well.

I was pleased to see a recent Harvard Business Review article that spoke to this very issue. "Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership," (September 2007) discussed the fact that using "glass ceiling" to describe the barriers women experience is actually a misnomer; the real experience is a labyrinth--a maze in which every twist and turn presents challenges and obstacles to success. By mislabeling or misdiagnosing the issue, we have been formulating simplistic approaches to a much more complex set of challenges. Many of the approaches focus more on tactics that organizations and individual women can use rather than addressing the systemic issues of organizational policies, practices, and structures that just don't work to enable and foster women's success. This is combined with biases about women's leadership styles, the lack of flexibility in many organizations, a lack of recognizing the real barriers that still exist for women, and maintenance of systems that are mired in the past without much hope of real change.

While mentoring is important, it is only a small part of the solution. Women's roles, styles, and leadership are still often relegated to second-class status in the workplace, and mentoring simply will not change the systemic structures that perpetuate this disadvantage. While organizations do need to consider how they can value and recognize differences, the real question for organizations is, "Are you really committed to having a more diverse workforce and making the structural changes needed to support women and people of color?" If so, it will take radical change and a very different set of assumptions about flexibility, leadership styles, contribution, and definition of what constitutes a career.

Here are seven things an organization needs to do if it really wants to enable and support women's success:

  1. Focus on output and added value rather than on fitting in and face time. Evaluating individuals based on contribution rather than how well they fit or how much face time they can offer can provide the needed flexibility to enable women to excel and succeed.
  2. Assure that policies and practices create flexibility. Flexibility can be increased through support for on and off ramps in one's career and part-time and job-sharing positions, while maintaining a career track. Create policies that enable women to contribute while recognizing that, at different stages of their career and life, they may need a career track that enables them to address both work and life responsibilities.
  3. Develop competent managers who know how to coach and mentor a diverse workforce. Ensure all managers have the skill set to coach, mentor, and develop women in the workforce. This includes their ability to manage flexible work arrangements and to support individuals' career growth in career paths that are cutting edge in the 21st century.
  4. Make sure women are working with colleagues and leaders who actively support them. You know which leaders are supportive of a more diverse workplace. Make sure women in the organization are not teamed or paired with leaders who will not actively support them.
  5. Broaden the perspective of an effective leadership style to include styles that foster teamwork, engagement, and collaboration. Leadership styles need to recognize and reward the different styles and approaches that women bring.
  6. Understand and address that women of color and white women have a differentiated experience. Ensure that approaches to women's success examine and address the differentiated barriers that women of color experience from those of white women.
  7. Remove barriers and biases that affect women differentially than men. Some actions to overcome these barriers include ensuring that women receive "stretch" assignments at the same rate as their male counterparts; aggressively auditing women's and men's career paths to see if men are progressing more rapidly through the organization; and auditing compensation to ensure women are receiving equitable salaries. Make sure there are no overt or covert biases impacting women's success. For example, are women penalized for taking time off for maternity leave or family time?

The conversation about women's success in organizations has been going on for more than 30 years. Many organizations are moving along the path with respect to their desire to retain and promote women, but it's time to both diagnose the challenges appropriately and to create comprehensive approaches to achieve real and sustainable change.