Viewpoint: How HR Can Increase Women’s Access to Critical Stretch Opportunities

By Selena Rezvani and Jo Miller February 27, 2019

​Imagine you could read the minds of 70 CHROs and business leaders to glean their most urgent HR priority today. What do you think it would be?

The Institute for Human Resource Professionals recently found out in its survey of the top 2019 HR initiatives. When researchers queried the leaders on what most keeps them up at night, the need to reskill employees and build "skills transferability" ranked highest out of 22 factors.

Stretch assignments are one underleveraged vehicle for promoting skills transferability. Stretch assignments are a way for employees to gain new experience and "skill up" in preparation for future roles while solving a real issue designated by the business. Organizations benefit from stretch assignments by disseminating skills and knowledge more broadly, increasing agility and vetting leadership pipelines. Employees gain visibility and exposure to new areas, services and leaders. 

In fact, there's strong evidence to confirm the career-transforming power of these opportunities. When executive search firm Egon Zehnder surveyed 823 international executives, asking them to reflect on what had helped unleash their potential, no other form of career development came close: 71 percent cited stretch assignments. And research from Korn Ferry named stretch or rotational assignments as the most valuable skill-building experience in the leadership development journey, ahead of action learning, mentoring, exposure to more senior leaders and formal classroom training. 

Knowing that stretch assignments are a proven way to propel a career to new heights and that women are less likely than men to receive these opportunities, we at Be Leaderly launched a new study in 2018. We sought to uncover if men and women differ in their perceptions of the enablers, challenges and roadblocks that come with taking on a stretch. What makes them want to say yes? And what actions can HR and business leaders take to create more-equitable stretch assignments? 

Men and Women Approach Stretch Assignments Very Differently

Here are some of our most illuminating findings from Out of the Comfort Zone, our survey of more than 1,500 professionals:

  1. Women are less passionate and engaged in their work. One of the most remarkable perceptions we uncovered is that fewer women feel engaged in and passionate about their job (67 percent of women compared to 77 percent of men)—a provocative statistic, though one that may not surprise HR, given growing movements like #MeToo, Time's Up and the global movement for women's rights. Interestingly, there's a strong correlation between employees who feel engaged and passionate about their work and those who perceive that their employer makes it easy to assess their own readiness to advance.
  2. Men perceive a clearer path to advancement. Women have nearly the same ambition as men to move into vice president and C-level leadership roles (48 percent of women versus 51 percent of men). Yet despite having similar career aspirations, women and men experience different levels of support in attaining them. The largest portion of women in our survey (45 percent) disagreed with the statement, "My company makes it easy for me to gauge my readiness to advance internally," while the largest portion of men agreed (40 percent). This underscores that men see a clearer route to advancement.
  3. Women feel they need to arrive great, not become great. Our findings support previous research that shows women are more likely than men to underestimate their abilities. We found women less likely than men to be comfortable applying for a new role that's a stretch while meeting only the "bare minimum" requirements (55 percent versus 65 percent, respectively). Women are also less likely than men to overestimate or "round up" their skills when assessing how ready they are for a new job.
    A number of workplace dynamics may contribute to these differences. For example, women receive less specific, actionable feedback in performance reviews. Also, although women ask for informal feedback as often as men do, they say they receive it less often. HR can train managers to deliver more structured, accountable and unbiased performance feedback that supports employees in objectively sizing up their readiness to tackle a challenging new assignment or job.
  4. The genders tend to agree on the factors that must be present before they will agree to attempt a stretch assignment. Women and men factor in similar motivations and roadblocks when deciding whether to accept a stretch assignment. For both genders, the top criteria for saying yes to a stretch are having the personal influence to drive a successful outcome and alignment with their career goals. Women and men agree that office politics, not a lack of time, is the biggest practical challenge to taking on a stretch assignment.

There are also some differences. When deciding whether to agree to a stretch assignment, women (18 percent) are more likely than men (11 percent) to prioritize exposure to key mentors and sponsors. Meanwhile, men are 3.5 times more likely than women to cite pay as a factor that makes a stretch assignment appealing. 

How Can HR Level the Playing Field?

In the midst of what Gallup has named "the worldwide employee engagement crisis," employers and HR professionals can't afford to wait to articulate a clearer path to advancement for women. Our research suggests that when career opportunities and promotions are unclear, unadvertised and unevenly offered, women hesitate more to pursue them. 

What can your HR team do to offer these career-transforming opportunities more uniformly? 

  • Create an open "marketplace" for stretch opportunities. By creating an internal website or jobs board dedicated to stretch assignments, you gain the equivalent of an internal gig economy. This stretch marketplace helps more employees get cross-training and new skills from varied assignments. This marketplace can standardize the way stretch assignments are described to make it easier for employees to objectively evaluate their fit and readiness. It can also encourage managers to post assignments and roles in a way that's transparent and searchable.
  • Initiate more stretch conversations. HR can institute a flagging system that alerts managers when it's time to discuss interest in stretch assignments with a given direct report. Creating such an alert could stop stretches from going only to individuals who are good self-promoters and boost individuals who tend to round down their own readiness for a stretch (something our research shows women are more likely to do). While HR's at it, it can track which employees actually take on stretch assignments and offer more high-potential women opportunities that put them in front of leadership.
  • Enable a growth mindset. The value of stretch opportunities comes less from hard outcomes and more from giving someone the chance to learn. Cultivating a culture that allows for learning and growth—complete with epic fails—is in any organization's best interest. This is especially important given that women in our study report being less comfortable taking on a stretch with the bare minimum requirements. For HR to promote this kind of supportive, coaching culture means alerting women when a stretch assignment comes along and sharing information about the resources, authority and influence needed to be successful. While an employee is working on a stretch assignment, HR can also reduce obstacles by matching stretch assignees with influential supporters and mentors who can champion their decisions and help them navigate office politics.

 When an organization has a well-thought-out plan for offering and overseeing stretch assignments, they are less likely to be seen as political, biased or promoting favoritism. Becoming more purposeful about how stretches are offered is an important way for HR to close gender gaps, help employees reskill for the future and maximize talent contributions.

Jo Miller is CEO and Selena Rezvani is vice president of consulting and research for Be Leaderly, a research and consulting firm on women's leadership.



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