In recent decades, although women’s participation in the workforce has increased dramatically, the pathway and progression to female representation in leadership are still stymied. The Global Gender Gap Report 2021, released this March, found women represent just 27% of all manager positions — a statistic that does not yet consider the pandemic’s devastating effects on the economic gender gap. LinkedIn data further show a marked decline in hiring women for leadership roles.

What’s preventing progress on women in leadership? What attitudes and obstacles stand in the way of greater diversity and inclusion at the highest levels of companies?

Mercer and Oliver Wyman partnered to discuss the roadblocks in women’s career progression. This virtual panel, which also included participants from Marsh McLennan, was aligned with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #ChoosetoChallenge, which seeks to create a gender-equal world by confronting the status quo. “A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change.”

Drawing upon findings from Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality research and Oliver Wyman’s research, Making the Invisible, Visible, this discussion uncovered four hidden barriers to women’s progression to leadership and how to ensure equality of opportunity, experience and pay.  

1. Leadership is the same game with different rules

Men and women tend to define effective leadership differently, and ambiguity introduces opportunities for implicit assumptions to take over. According to Terry Stone, Managing Partner, Americas and Executive Sponsor of Inclusion and Diversity for Oliver Wyman, “At the early stages in the career, performance management is measured objectively against competencies; there is a natural linear progression. As you get to the top, decisions become more subjective, which amplifies the impact of unconscious bias. Affinity and personal network play a bigger role, and the path is less direct.”

Defining and communicating leadership competencies can help reduce biases and make processes around performance management and succession planning more transparent. Nzinga “Zing” Shaw, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer for Marsh McLennan, emphasized the importance of redefining our notion of “leadership,” addressing the historical context in the US: “When I think about gender … we have learned that men were leaders. When we look at the 46 presidents, they’ve all been men, and we have to unlearn what leadership looks like.”  

Concerning unlearning leadership characteristics and reducing biases, Martine Ferland, President and CEO of Mercer, noted that the Mercer Executive Committee is constantly involved in “changing the definition and nature of leadership — especially in this fast-paced, quick-changing, global, uncertain world. What are the key leadership traits we need? [We’re working on] unlearning [traditional traits], changing the profile and broadening the lens.”

2. Results do not speak for themselves

Oliver Wyman’s survey revealed that women focus more time and energy on driving results and less time on building relationships and natural affinity. This hurts them in the senior leadership decision-making process when trust and affinity factor into high-risk people decisions. How can organizations make a difference?

Carmen Fernandez, Chief People Officer for Marsh McLennan, says creating a long-term strategy is key to changing course at MMC, where there is “the passion and commitment of inclusion as an executive team and as a business priority. [To transform,] first, you put a plan in place with goals. Second, you measure those goals, and last, you hold people accountable.”

According to Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality research, although 50% of organizations globally have formal quantitative diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals, few focus on internal and external transparency and communication. The most common information disclosed publicly is representation of women in senior ranks (46%) and equity of pay (27%). We encourage organizations to be transparent with their data and progress to ensure long-term accountability.

“DEI is not an HR-only priority. The board of directors needs to be engaged, and the executive committee has to meet and talk about DEI frequently.” – Nzinga “Zing” Shaw, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, Marsh McLennan

3. Qualified women are unintentionally left on the sidelines

According to Stone, “Women are not top of mind for new roles because they are less likely to self-advocate and underestimate their own readiness, and are left off the list of candidates due to benevolent sexism and assumptions of too much burden at home.” Fernandez added, “I have been on the receiving end and have been a witness to conversations happening about women, with others thinking that they are not ready.”

Advocates and allies are needed in everyday decisions — at all levels. This is where representation becomes a significant factor in inclusion. As Ferland noted, “When you have 50% of the leadership team made up of women, when a decision is made, people feel included, that they have been heard, and they see people like them being a part of that decision process.”

4. Implicit biases and micro-aggressions are exhausting

Reducing biases and creating a culture where everyone can thrive is a business imperative. “Biases are real, such as misattribution — when a woman says something in a meeting, no one says anything, and then 15 minutes later, a man says the same thing, and everyone is jumping all over it — or the interrupting factor,” says Stone. “The women that do get ahead face bias and micro-aggressions every step of the way. It’s a tiring road, and many choose to opt out.”

Policies, processes and programs need to be aligned and connected to eliminate bias — especially the unconscious bias that leads people to hire and develop people who look, talk and think like they do. Nick Studer, Managing Partner of Oliver Wyman, highlighted that ““inclusion is our day job. We can only have a significant impact on our clients … if we are able to mobilize large teams across multiple dimensions of difference, both visible and invisible. DEI is not an extracurricular; it is not a skill we need on the side — it is at the very heart of our job.”

Reflecting on this past International Women’s Day, #ChooseToChallenge and create lasting change by making sponsorship a core part of being a leader at your organization. As Ferland noted, “There is not one silver bullet; it requires activation of different muscles, but businesses need to own [DEI], truly.”  

Sponsorship is one of the great equalizers when it comes to shifting mindsets and progressing female talent into senior roles. As Studer said, “Everyone has to have the opportunity to be sponsored. Mentorship is about advice. Sponsorship is someone who would put [in] their personal capital and spend it for your personal benefit. Advocacy is the key to sponsorship.”

Sponsorship can be powerful in forging an inclusive culture where women’s careers thrive and achievements are celebrated. But it’s only one facet in a broader journey. A holistic approach is needed to move the needle on gender equality — whether in reducing biases and structural inequities, being transparent with data and progress, or ensuring accountability with DEI metrics and goals. Creating lasting change and making workforce equity a reality requires a data-based DEI strategy that considers all aspects of the employee experience. 

India Johnstone
India Johnstone

Project Manager, Diversity and Inclusion Consulting, Mercer

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