Gender diversity has been given a higher profile, has it made a difference?

But a major finding of Ashridge research is that not much has changed for women in business over the past 30 years. The number of women reaching the top is still very small – significantly less than 20 per cent are getting into board positions globally.

Ashridge Business School research, Understanding Women’s Careers, looked at what is blocking women’s path to the top and which factors help to build careers. It showed that despite policies and practices in place to support women, organisational attitudes are still hampering career progress. However, there is plenty that HR can do on a practical and cultural level so that women get their seat at the top table.

More recently, we (myself and Viki Holton, Research Fellow at Ashridge) surveyed over 1,400 female senior managers and directors and the results form the basis our new book Women in Business: Navigating Career Success. Nearly half believe it is harder for a woman to succeed in an organisation compared with male colleagues, while 49 per cent think men and women are treated differently in terms of leadership and behaviour. Having children remains one of the biggest hurdles to career development. A culture of long hours and extensive international travel can affect some women’s ability to fill certain roles.

Creating a culture that is women or even family friendly makes a real difference, but the approach to this in many organisations is informal or ad hoc – one example is where part-time or flexi working options are left to individual managers. A strategic approach would be much better. Also, a focus on early career development opportunities would help many women.

Such opportunities work as ‘career multipliers’ and help individuals stand out at the early stages of their careers. More of a focus on improving career development structures, systems and support for women, would help boost the number of female senior managers and directors. Appointing a board- level champion for diversity makes progress more likely, as it demonstrates to the business how important these issues are. It also means that sufficient staff and resources are allocated.

The leadership programmes for women at Johnson & Johnson and at Novo Nordisk are good examples of a formal process to help women senior managers learn those key skills needed to propel their career to director level. A number of assumptions continue to be made about women, for example, managers often assume that women with children don’t want international assignments, or that women who choose to work part time are not interested in career progression. Organisations need to ask women what they want from their career, rather than guessing. Providing networks for women or encouraging women to join relevant networks can also fuel career progression.

To make a real difference to the number of women chairs and chief executives, and improve gender diversity, HR departments need to think about ways their organisation can become a diversity champion. HR directors need to identify issues that can make a difference before there is a level playing field. Here are some of our tips for organisations and individuals.

Organisations should work to:

  • Ensure women have the opportunity to identify their career goals, ambitions and aspirations.
  • Create an environment that supports and develops women (and of course the same is true for men).
  • Be aware of the issues and organisational blockages to women’s progression and find ways to resolve these problems.

Advice for women – tips to get to the top
Be explicit – identify your career goals, ambitions and aspirations. Remember, you can adapt, develop and change these over time. Also, welcome opportunities when they arise and ensure you put yourself forward for key projects and assignments.

Find a good boss – recognise the important role your boss can play in your career success. Finding a good supportive boss is invaluable for developmental purposes.

Identify who can help – coaches, mentors and sponsors. Take every developmental opportunity offered to you and offer to develop others. Relationships and networks are important, too. Make your networks work for you by being actively involved in both internal and external groups.

Develop self-awareness – identify your major strengths, style, interests, values, beliefs and any areas you need to develop. Be open-minded to and welcome feedback from others to help you raise your self-awareness, confidence and self-belief.

Develop a career plan – create your personal brand and a personal pitch to share with others when appropriate.

Juggle the work-life balance – this is tough and needs careful planning. Recognise that there will be times when it feels unbalanced and others when you feel more in control. Find the strategies that work for you.