This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Women's networks and organizations have been responsible for some great achievements in the advancement of women in business. As the leader of a women's professional organization which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, I know from experience the influence and change women can drive through rallying together to support and advocate for each other.
Yet despite all the successes, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles in our economy. While they occupy considerably more supporting roles in business (close to 40 per cent of middle-management roles are held by women) and have for decades, little progress has been made in the C-suite.
Why is that? Because to drive cultural change in any organization, the engagement of all employees is necessary, yet when it comes to initiatives to increase the number of women in leadership roles, men have been largely uninvolved: The final frontier in the advancement of women leaders – is the engagement of men.
For those looking to launch or reinvigorate such an initiative in their organization, the key to success will be securing the commitment of both men and women to achieve results. To get that commitment, leaders will need to take some important steps to set the stage for success.
Make the business case for female leaders
To move past lip service to diversity initiatives, everyone in the organization needs to be convinced that investing in change will drive better performance. Educate your employees on the business case for women in leadership. There are volumes of research from credible organizations like McKinsey, Credit Suisse and Catalyst which demonstrate that companies with more women in leadership positions are more profitable and produce higher shareholder returns. Be prepared to spend time selling the business case and create opportunities for a dialogue with your employees on why this will produce a more competitive organization.
Ensure male executives are included in initiatives
The majority of women's advancement initiatives undertaken over the years have faltered because they lacked the active participation of key influencers and leaders in the organization. Given men occupy over 80 per cent of executive roles in Canada, they hold those key influencer roles and are integral to driving cultural change in an organization. Consistent and visible commitment by senior male leaders in the organization is needed to create an environment in which talented women can rise to the top.
It's not a 'women's issue'
Too often, there is a perception that women's advancement initiatives are about providing special help or privileges to women. In fact, they should be about educating leaders to be better at managing talent and getting the best out of everyone on the bench. We all have a natural propensity to be good at managing people just like ourselves, but the best managers, those who create great companies, can spot and develop talent that brings something new and unique to the organization.
Include all men in the dialogue
Many people mistakenly assume that once the current generation of senior executives retire, we will see women rise into those leadership roles in greater numbers. The reality is that women have been in middle-management roles for decades. We have had an ample supply of educated, experienced female professionals for several generations but that hasn't resulted in more women moving into the C-suite.
In order to see the face of senior leadership reflect broader society, all employees need to be aware of the unconscious biases we hold – in particular, the ideas and perceptions around what a leader "looks like." We need to challenge those biases at all levels in the organization and ensure managers are aware of our propensity to gravitate towards those most like us. It affects who we assign to important projects, who we chose to mentor and who we see as the rising stars for leadership.
Creating an environment in your organization that allows both women and men to rise to leadership roles requires changing the culture to one which values diversity of thought and leadership. For any women's advancement initiative to be successful, men need to be engaged in achieving that goal.