Despite many companies’ efforts to achieve a diverse workforce, the majority (70 percent) of organizations participating in a recent poll do not have a clearly defined strategy or philosophy for developing women into leadership roles, according to the results of the Women’s Leadership Development Survey conducted by Mercer in conjunction with Talent Management and Diversity Management magazines.
The survey results, released Oct. 25, 2010, represent responses from human resource, talent management and diversity leaders at more than 540 organizations throughout the U.S. The survey included a broad cross-section of industries, with health care, for-profit services, government/public sector, financial/banking and high-tech/telecommunications organizations representing the largest segments.
According to the survey report, 43 percent of employers surveyed indicate that their organization does not offer activities or programs targeted to the needs of women leaders. While 23 percent said they offer some activities or programs, 19 percent said their approach to the development of women leaders is only to track and monitor progress. Just 5 percent said they provide a robust program, and 4 percent said they plan to add programs and activities.
When asked how well the organizational climate supports the development of women, 43 percent of respondents said “to a moderate extent,” while 27 percent said “to a great extent,” 21 percent said “to a small extent” and 7 percent said it is not supported at all.
“A few decades ago, many organizations offered specific programs and activities to support women as they advanced into management and leadership roles,” said Colleen O’Neill, Ph.D., a senior partner in Mercer’s human capital consulting business. “Today, as our survey shows, there’s less certainty about what’s appropriate and what’s effective with respect to women’s leadership development. Additionally, when companies do take steps to support women, they often focus narrowly on tactics like flexible work schedules. That may be a good starting point, but it’s certainly not a complete solution.”
When employers were asked about the types of programs that target the needs of women leaders, the top programs listed were flexible work arrangements, diversity sourcing/recruiting, coaching and mentoring. These same four programs were identified by respondents as most effective in developing women leaders.
In addition, the organizations surveyed were asked about their level of concern regarding various aspects of women in leadership. Only three aspects garnered a response of “very concerned” from one-fifth or more of the respondents:
- Having women develop the full range of skills necessary for a senior leadership position (21 percent).
- Retaining women once they reach leadership levels (21 percent).
- Having enough women in the leadership pipeline (20 percent).
“The majority of respondents indicated that their organizations were somewhat concerned or not at all concerned about most aspects of women’s leadership development,” said O’Neill. “That’s a fairly surprising finding. It represents quite a shift from what we’ve seen historically, and it doesn’t fit with organizations’ concerns today around diversity.”
Identifying Obstacles to Advancement
Survey respondents were asked to identify the top three factors preventing women in their organizations’ leadership talent pools from advancing to the next level. The leading response from among 13 choices was lack of an executive sponsor (43 percent), followed by insufficient breadth of experience (36 percent) and work/life balance (31 percent).
Similarly, respondents said that the biggest challenges women face regarding their development as leaders in the organization pertain to lack of role models, lack of opportunities for career advancement and lack of support from upper management. And while their organizations might not have expressed significant concern around women’s leadership development, many respondents indicated their desire to improve the effectiveness of their programs through actions such as:
- Developing formal mentoring/coaching programs for women leaders.
- Identifying high-potential leaders early in their careers.
- Promoting greater awareness of women’s leadership development at the board and executive level.
“Most respondents seemed to feel strongly that their organizations should pay greater attention to this issue,” O’Neill said. “Some, however, were adamant that women be treated no differently than men from a leadership development perspective.”