Is Your Organization Limiting High-Potential Women?

By Rania H. Anderson October 3, 2018

As an HR professional, you are working hard to ensure that there's an equal playing field for men and women in your organization. Unfortunately, it's possible that you haven't fully considered that some of your workplace practices are disproportionately limiting your female employees.

My new book, WE: Men, Women, and the Decisive Formula for Winning at Work (Wiley, 2018), shows readers how they can improve their own results—and boost their organizational performance—by transforming the way they work with women. This often means making changes to the work environment so that women can excel.

Here are six commonly overlooked barriers that impede women's performance:

1. Failing to enlist and equip men and front-line managers. Most organizations' efforts are limited to three main initiatives:

  • Getting commitment from senior executives.

  • Developing women through women's leadership programs.

  •  Implementing programs and benefits that accommodate women's needs, such as flexible work schedules, leave policies and pay equity audits.

But the efforts typically don't encourage men and front-line managers to be individually accountable to recruit, retain and advance women. When they do, they are often limited to mandating sexual harassment and unconscious bias training.

While these are necessary, the focus is on "what not to do." The most progressive organizations positively enlist and equip men and managers with the actions they need to intentionally work and lead more effectively with women

2. Relying too much on self-assessments. Does your performance review process begin with employees doing self-evaluations, which their managers use to complete the review? If so, your organization is putting some women at a disadvantage. Women tend to be more critical of their own performance and less likely to rate themselves as highly as men. So, their performance evaluations start from a lower point than men.

3. Limiting the job candidates. Does your recruiting process rely on the hiring manager's networks to source candidates? Do the job descriptions contain a laundry list of qualifications that hardly anyone ever meets? Do current employees need to take the initiative to apply for the role? These three practices make it harder to have gender-balanced teams.

Since most managers are men and men network mostly with other men, when they ask their male colleagues for referrals, they are most commonly referred to male candidates. Moreover, women typically don't apply for jobs unless they meet at least 80 percent of the job qualifications. But men apply if they meet only 50 percent or 60 percent of them. If job descriptions contain rarely-met requirements, women will likely not apply for them and men will.

To address this, managers and HR professionals at Duke Energy Corp. in North Carolina identify slates of candidates more objectively. When managers submit a list of candidates for a position, HR analyzes the candidates' fit and identify other candidates who match the position profile. Their goal is to ensure that the candidate slate includes all qualified candidates, even those not known to the hiring manager.

4. Focusing on mentoring, but not sponsoring. Mentoring is necessary and important, but it's insufficient to help women advance. Mentoring is giving someone advice in private. Sponsorship is talking about someone in public and giving them challenging assignments and opportunities. Men are more likely to have sponsors than women are. The lack of sponsors has been shown to be one of the biggest barriers holding women back.

5. Depending too much on poorly funded women's networks. Does your organization believe that providing a women's network, affinity group or employee resource group will address female employees' needs? While these are important ways to connect and support each other, women need more to advance. Women benefit most from regular exposure to senior leaders, executives and strategic clients.

6. Failing to hold managers accountable. How are diversity and inclusion measured in your organization? Do you measure just the number of women? Do you set goals and hold managers accountable? If you consider D&I a business imperative, you should measure multiple aspects of it and hold managers individually accountable for it.

The most forward-looking organizations understand that high-potential women aren't being held back because they are unqualified or don't want to take on more responsibility. They're being held back because leaders aren't enabling women to thrive and contribute at the highest levels of performance and results.

Rania H. Anderson is a corporate speaker who helps organizations recruit, retain, include and lead with women. 




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