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I’m fortunate to have a helicopter view of the gender debate. As I engage with senior women from all manner of industries, I hear two key themes emerging:
Both are big, systemic issues that have been centuries in the making. What interests me are the solutions - and I’m spotting an angle that’s been neglected.
Plenty of focus has gone into attracting & retaining female talent (e.g. see PwC’s report on inclusive recruitment), with issues like equal pay, gender bias and flexible working conditions topping the to-do list.
But much less attention has gone into what the excellent Claire Mason of Man Bites Dog describes as the ‘Gender Say Gap.’ This is the gap in visibility and voice between men and women in the workplace. These are some real-life scenarios I hear from senior women:
So, what can you do about it? From where I’m sitting there are 4 stages where the Gender Say Gap is relevant to the female talent pipeline. I’m going to outline my observations and recommendations on each, based on my experience training women (and men) in leadership communications - please let me know what resonates and where you’d challenge my thinking.
Human beings are drawn to environments where ‘people like me’ are thriving. We all need role models to show us a pathway - we become who we can see. The gender say gap here means we don’t have enough (if any) visible, vocal women acting as role models to draw more girls into male dominated careers. And when there are few women, there are fewer role models. Catch-22.
What you can do: Look for any and all potential female role models within your company and encourage them towards greater visibility. Put them on stage. Interview them. Showcase videos of them speaking about their careers and their work. Boast about them. It doesn’t cost much to get visible on LinkedIn, for example.
Remember that many women suffer from ‘Tiara Syndrome’, so they won’t necessarily put themselves forward unless they are invited and /or encouraged.
You might also think longer term and take your female staff on the road to speak to young people. We’re working together with a big tech firm to take their female leaders to schools, where they promote careers in technology to boys and girls from a young age.
It will take a few bold women to break the mould before more are able to step forward.
In my experience, most women in the early stages of their career (20-somethings) aren’t conscious of a gender say gap, or any gender gap at all. They’re just busy ‘getting on with it’. But we know that even if they don’t notice it, this is where the foundations are set.
Most women report being socialised as children to be nice to others (86%), to be a good student (86%) and to be helpful (77%) but comparatively few are socialised to be leaders (44%), or to express their opinions (34%) (numbers from this KPMG study).
Unless we counter this socialisation at early career stages, the female talent pipeline will continue to leak.
What you can do: My team and I have been experimenting for 10 years on how to develop confidence, voice and visibility in women and men. Our programmes were primarily designed by women, so we have naturally developed what you could see as a ‘feminine’ approach to leadership communications; emphasizing authenticity, empathy and service leadership, over ‘rules’ of how to be dominant in communication.
We’ve found four approaches to be particularly helpful for combatting the gender say gap in early stage women (although these are equally relevant to men too):
As women enter their mid 30s, we often observe a dilemma forming, ‘do I push for my work ambitions, or fulfil my ambitions for family?’ Whilst most of us would hope that both are possible, that stats suggest this is still far from reality. Significant portions of women are still choosing family over the demand of senior management roles.
The gender say gap becomes increasingly evident here. By this age, our ‘good student’ women have been heads down and working for a decade or more, and perhaps have been passed over for opportunities (prestigious projects, promotions, speaking opportunities) in favour of more visible and vocal male counterparts. If you’re not careful, this, combined with maternal desires, can cause women to opt out of the race to the top and start to lean back from their career. This is the phenomena Lean In describes so successfully.
What you can do:
*(Non-alpha personal styles can not only be successful at a senior level, but are necessary for growth in the future world of work. If we’re going to think differently, we need different personalities in the room.)
Finally, I want to touch on my observations of the gender say gap at the very top of organisations. This HBR / INSEAD study (pictured below) highlighted that women are rated as equalling or exceeding men in all aspects of leadership, with the exception of one characteristic: having and articulating a vision.
Whilst there are many reasons why fewer women get to CEO, a lack of the willingness to have and express vision could be a significant one. We simply aren’t positioning ourselves as the direction-setters. Look at even Sheryl Sandberg as COO of Facebook, activating someone else’s vision rather than her own. Perhaps she is one of those 77% of women who have been socialised to be helpful, rather than to lead? Ok, I’m being provocative, but I think there’s something in it.
My work with female leaders is showing me that women are often reticent to put forward a bold, personal vision for the future, for fear that it might lack substance, for fear that someone might take offence, or for fear we might be laughed off stage.
At the same time, I believe that women have an important role to play in our world. I constantly meet women who hold inside them bold visions for a future that benefits whole communities, whole systems, rather than just individuals or customers. It’s this kind of inspiring, beyond-personal visionary thinking that’s going to shape our future, if we only let it.
What you can do:
In summary, the gender say gap is affecting multiple parts of the female talent pipeline and there are very practical things that can be done to increase women’s visibility and voice.
More than this, there’s a huge advantage of having visible female leaders right now. The media and conference organisers are desperate for more female voices - and you may just find that yours is the organisation that gets heard more when you put your female leaders forward.
If you’d like to discuss how working on your gender say gap can boost your female talent pipeline, please get in touch.
The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).
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