Developing Women Leaders: Addressing Unconscious Gender Bias

March 4, 2024

Company Culture

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, it is important to reflect on the progress made toward gender equality in the workplace while also acknowledging the work left to do. While overt sexism is declining, unconscious gender bias continues to impede women’s advancement into leadership roles across industries. However, through purposeful efforts to develop women leaders and address this bias, organisations can create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments where everyone can thrive.

The Barriers of Bias

While women have made tremendous strides in entering fields historically dominated by men, parity at the highest levels of leadership remains elusive. According to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women were promoted. Women comprised just 26.5% of VP-level roles and 21.2% of the C-suite.

Behind these disparities lies a complex web of conscious and unconscious biases that influence how women are perceived, evaluated, and given access to opportunities. An analysis by Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that 64% of women had experienced microaggressions, such as being interrupted, questioning their judgement, or having accomplishments attributed to luck rather than skill. These everyday slights can seriously undermine women’s confidence.

Research shows both men and women hold unconscious gendered associations, such as believing men are more decisive or better negotiators. These biases creep into talent management processes without realising it, impacting hiring, assignments, reviews, and promotions. When criteria for success align more closely with stereotypically male traits, women end up at a disadvantage.

The Need for Inclusive Leadership

Organisations must take proactive steps to develop women leaders and cultivate inclusive leadership at all levels to interrupt these biases. This begins with an increasing understanding of how unconscious bias manifests and implementing updated policies, processes, training, and metrics to promote equity.

Some leading companies have already taken bold action. Microsoft mandated unconscious bias training for all employees and implemented a transparent review system, helping increase female representation in leadership by 3.6% in just one year. Adobe introduced gender-neutral parental leave and an innovative check-in tool, allowing employees to provide anonymous feedback to managers on creating an inclusive environment.

At the individual level, emerging research shows that an inclusive, empowering leadership style benefits companies and employees. In a 2019 Harvard study, women scored higher than men on 17 essential leadership capabilities, including collaboration, inspiration, participation, and development. Women leaders also tend to adopt a democratic approach that unlocks innovation by incorporating diverse voices.
By encouraging communal success over individual glory, mentoring others, and inviting challenges of the status quo, inclusive leaders set the stage for women to fully contribute their talents. They model openness to feedback, collaborative problem-solving, and growth-focused development.

Developing Confident Women Leaders

Equipping women with crucial leadership skills, visibility, and networks accelerates their leadership readiness and fills the leadership pipeline. Thoughtfully designed development programs consider women’s unique challenges, such as exclusion from informal networks, blurred work-life boundaries, and lack of influential sponsors.

Targeted courses build critical hard skills in strategy, financial acumen, and risk management while cultivating soft skills, including executive presence, communication, and negotiating. Leadership conferences, networking events, and women’s affinity groups create community and support. Mentorship and sponsorship by senior leaders provide visibility, experience, and advocacy needed to ascend the corporate ladder.

Many companies now offer women-only leadership programs, recognising that mixed-gender training may expose some women to further bias. In women-only spaces, everyday experiences like being interrupted or having ideas stolen can be safely shared without judgment. For ultimate impact, pairing women-only development with broader inclusion initiatives ensures women have a level playing field to demonstrate their new capabilities.

The Power of Data

Metrics provide tangible proof of what gets measured and gets improved. Tracking representation at each level, compensation, promotions, attrition, and other metrics shines a light on inequities and encourages accountability. Some companies are getting creative, using people analytics through artificial intelligence to detect subtle biases in talent decisions. Publicly sharing diversity data also motivates positive PR for companies walking the talk.

While targets alone don’t eliminate bias, they signal commitment and enable measurement of progress. Tying executive compensation to diversity goals has been another effective motivator. Though change takes patience, small gains accumulate, as seen by women occupying 28% of board seats at S&P 500 companies, up from just 16% a decade ago.

The Path Forward

Addressing unconscious gender bias and developing women leaders benefit organisations, women themselves, and society. Though barriers remain, collective action and openness to growth can prevent individuals from limiting others’ potential. Maintaining hope fuels continued efforts toward a future where positions of power equally represent the gender diversity of society.

As International Women’s Month sparks reflection on how far we’ve come and must still go, companies have an opportunity to re-examine gaps and create equitable workplaces. Through education, policy improvements, leadership development, advocacy, and transparency, sustained commitment can make the invisible barriers holding women back visible and removable. Eliminating gender bias and empowering women leaders creates gains for all and enables humanity to thrive together.