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Few companies have strategy for developing women leaders

Friday, November 12, 2010  
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Despite organizations’ efforts to achieve a diverse workforce, the majority -- 70 percent -- do not have a clearly defined strategy or philosophy for the development of women into leadership roles, according to the new Women’s Leadership Development Survey conducted by Mercer in conjunction with Talent Management and Diversity Management magazines.

The survey, conducted in September, includes responses from human resource, talent management and diversity leaders at more than 540 organizations across a broad spectrum of industries throughout the country.

More than two-fifths -- 43 percent -- of the employers surveyed said their organization does not offer any activities or programs targeted to the needs of women leaders. Nearly one-fourth offer some activities or programs, another 19 percent said their approach to the development of women leaders is to track and monitor progress only. Just 5 percent said they currently provide a robust program and 4 percent said they plan to add programs and activities in the future.

When asked how well the organizational climate supports the development of women, 43 percent of respondents said it does to a moderate extent, while 27 percent said to a great extent. One-fifth 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 asked about the types of programs offered that are specifically targeted to the needs of women leaders, the top programs listed by employers 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.

Additionally, in terms of employers’ 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) and having enough women in the leadership pipeline (20 percent).

"The majority of respondents indicated their organizations were somewhat concerned or not at all concerned about most aspects of women’s leadership development,” O’Neill said. "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

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 (31percent).

Similarly, respondents said the biggest challenges women face regarding their development as leaders within the organization pertain to a lack of role models, lack of opportunities for career advancement and lack of support from upper management. While their organizations may not have expressed significant concern around women’s leadership development, many respondents indicated their own 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 and 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.”

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