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