When I was younger, I wanted to sell my parents on the idea of buying me a new car. I created a PowerPoint presentation, complete with financial details (cost of existing car vs. the one I wanted), vehicle comparisons (safety features, gas mileage) and an analysis of what’s in it for them (lower payments due to leasing new car and a commitment to taking over car payments after one year). Much to their dismay, I successfully convinced them and got the car I wanted. This is my MO, so after spending a few years in the real estate industry, which, like the legal field, is fraught with women at the entry level and mostly devoid of them at the top, I got to work on my pitch to start a women’s initiative within our company–PowerPoint presentation and all.
I want to be part of something. To shape it. Influence it. Maybe even create it. And being a small cog in a big machine just doesn’t fulfill that. [Insert eye roll about Millenials here.] I did some research and put together a pitch for my company to start a women’s initiative. Now I am part of a group of only 5 people representing a company of thousands and helping shape the direction of diversity and inclusion. My company happened to already be exploring this issue so I was definitely in the right place at the right time, but these essential steps are necessary when pursuing a company-wide initiative.
A women’s initiative is not just about making changes to fit a working mom’s schedule. On the contrary, many women in an organization aren’t mothers, are mothers of older children, or have the necessary support at home. This should be about finding ways to recruit and retain top talent and promote diversity into the top rungs of leadership. Sure, that might include finding ways to work creatively during a young mother’s career, but it is also focused on empowering people with the necessary tools to take on more responsibility, engage with senior leaders, and build their brand so they can get to and be productive at the top.
The important thing is that there shouldn’t just be an arbitrary plan of getting X amount of women in leadership positions by a certain time period. That goal should be in mind while you help change the culture of the company. This is ideally done organically through the efforts of the initiative. For example, providing training opportunities to help remove unconscious bias can increase opportunities. Creating education around vital skills such as negotiation, executive presence, and brand building can equip women with the necessary skills to extend themselves for opportunities they might not otherwise put themselves out for. These changes can help increase the number of women at the top without making it feel forced.
It’s all well and good if people in the company support the idea for your initiative, but without the support of at least one top executive, particularly an influential one, the initiative is likely to go nowhere.
I am a middle manager in a large company, so I don’t have direct access to the C-Suite at my company. But I do have considerable goodwill with a few Senior Directors and VP-level people. So I started pitching the idea to those people. It was presented in a very positive light–look how we can be even more innovative leaders in our industry–not in a we-suck-at-promoting-women way. They liked the idea and worked my thoughts up the ladder until I ended up being one of only two representatives of women in our entire organization (the other being a VP) to pilot this program. These relationships were key. And I developed them over a long period of time, so this didn’t come off as a favor they were doing for me. They knew me, my ambition, and my work ethic. And they knew they could stake their reputation on me.
Ultimately, there are a few intertwined goals you want to sell to make the idea palatable:
- More Innovation/Creativity with Greater Diversity of Thought: It seems like common sense, but it’s backed by plenty of data. The more diversity in leadership, the more creative innovation thanks to varied experiences. This should be an easy sell because it can directly impact the bottom line.
- Better Talent Recruitment and Retention: Any company that wants to be a leader in its industry wants the best of the best when it comes to its talent. Providing a clear opportunity for everyone to grow makes it easier to bring in and retain top talent.
- Public Relations: Being known for having a diverse leadership and opportunities for people of all different backgrounds is not just good for recruitment, it is a great look for companies in the public eye. There are many industry lists of best companies for women, moms, etc. and being on those lists is one more way to get in front of the community as a quality business.
This is a nice little roadmap if you’re looking for direction on how to get started with a women’s initiative in your company.
Tips for Small Businesses
This is great if you work for a company that has thousands of employees. But as someone who used to be the only female attorney in a very small law firm, I know how hard it is to promote gender diversity when you don’t have the resources or support. So start small. Ask for financial support to take some leadership classes. Don’t make it necessarily about women/diversity. A few areas that are great learning realms for anyone, but are statistically areas where women need more assistance, are negotiating tactics and executive presence.
Ultimately, being able to set the compass of a company in the right direction is incredibly rewarding. The fact that it can help you in your own career progress is just the icing on top.
Below are a couple of great references. The first is an excellent source that includes both data points as well as steps to building a female leadership pipeline, and the second is an up-to-date, detailed look at various factors affecting women in the workplace.
Here’s a recent look at some companies getting it right in terms of women in leadership. It couldn’t hurt to reach out to them, or companies like them, for help in building your company’s program:
Check out Advancing Women Executives as a great organization to help you get started on your women’s initiative.