The Road Up

March 07, 2019 Share this article:

by Richard Sterling, Director of AltoPartners Australia

Last year I hosted a round table of 26 male and female executives from major Australian companies exploring the issue of gender diversity and what can be done to increase it at the leadership level.

I discovered that most of the companies represented seem to focus on mentoring as the key and only tool for women aspiring to senior leadership roles. I also discovered that most of the women considered mentoring as a road block to career progression and a source of significant frustration.

One summed it up by asking, “What do companies think is so lacking in women that they need to be mentored so very much?”

In my follow-up questions I wanted to know how many women received a promotion as a consequence of mentoring. What I learnt was that precious few made it up the ranks.

The issue for women is that mentoring does not translate to career progression often enough.

A study conducted of several thousand male and female executives by the non-profit organisation Catalyst revealed that women tended to have more mentors and report getting more mentoring then men.

Catalyst conducted a follow-up to this study two years later to find out how many of those initially surveyed achieved promotions.

There was a significant relationship between having had a mentor and having had a promotion two years later for male executives. For women, there was no clear relationship. Having a mentor and quite often mentors had little connection with being promoted.

Let me be clear. Mentoring has many positive benefits and is an excellent resource for executives. The difference seems to be that with male executives who are being mentored there seems to be the specific intent (even an informal intent) of achieving a promotion. The Catalyst study refers to this as Sponsorship.

Sponsors are defined by Catalyst as being advocates in positions of authority who use their influence intentionally to help others advance. Mentors on the other hand provide advice, feedback and coaching which all can quite unstructured and lacking clear objectives.

It is this difference which makes mentoring a road block to promotion and significant source of frustration for many up and coming women executives. As several women executives commented to me, “…it is a way of keeping women in their place.”

Perhaps this is harsh, but the sentiment is nevertheless very real, and the net result is that talented women simply stop seeking career progression with their current employer in favour of seizing opportunities with other companies, with competitors.

A Change of Intent

Companies need to have a closer look at their gender diversity objectives along with other barriers that prevent or at least slow women down in securing senior leadership positions. If the intent is to promote talented women to senior positions, then this intent must be reflected in the career development programs offered. Progressive companies are now providing Sponsorship programs and Mentoring programs as two distinctive streams.

Sponsorship programs have as their specific intent to increase the number of women being promoted. This means that a greater effort is placed on identifying the most talented women to be sponsored and it requires the active and positive participation of the company’s senior executives.

Merit Doesn’t Go Away

A Sponsorship program is not a guarantee of a promotion, but it provides women with crucial access to career making help and seems to level off the playing field.

Merit will continue to play a significant role, but the principles of merit need to be challenged. The Australian federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency provides a couple of examples of challenging the principles of merit: (a) making a dedicated effort to identify unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion; (b) using an executive search firm to find candidates from non-traditional pools as opposed to searching the usual networks.

From a corporate perspective Sponsorship programs need to be viewed as a serious investment in developing and retaining the best talent.

Finding talent, nurturing talent and providing career advancement should be seen in the context of being ahead of your competition.

If women are not winning senior executive and leadership roles within their current company, then that company is putting itself at a major disadvantage. The realisation of which may come when it is too late to implement a solution.

10 Steps for Getting More Women into Leadership

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Australia is making progress on many aspects of gender equality however, it notes that female representation in leadership continues to be a cause for concern.

Women remain underrepresented at every stage of the career pipeline in Australia, with poor representation at the C-suite and CEO levels.

In the 2017-18 Workplace Gender Equality Agency survey, only 17% of CEOs were women. Research shows that most CEO appointments come from line roles such a Chief Operating Officer and that approximately 30% of key management positions are held by women in Australia today.”

The Business Council of Australia, McKinsey & Company and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency teamed up to undertake a study using three years of Workplace Gender Equality Agency data as well as interviews.

The result, ‘Women In Leadership: Lessons from Australian Companies Leading The Way’, which provides an evidence-based recipe for dismantling barriers to women’s participation at senior levels. Based on the observations of leading practice made for the report, 10 steps for getting more women into leadership was designed.

  1. Build a strong case for change
  2. Role-model a commitment to diversity, including with business partners
  3. Redesign roles and work to enable flexible work and normalise uptake across levels and genders
  4. Actively sponsor rising women
  5. Set a clear diversity aspiration, backed up by accountability
  6. Support talent through life transitions
  7. Ensure the infrastructure is in place to support a more inclusive and flexible workplace
  8. Challenge traditional views of merit in recruitment and evaluation
  9. Invest in frontline leader capabilities to drive cultural change
  10. Develop rising women and ensure experience in key roles

Each of these steps comes with detailed explanation and case studies. You can download the full report here.