Do women’s initiatives work?

Do internal women’s initiatives work?   That was the question posed at a recent conference with some heavy hitting companies who gathered together to share best practices around how they attract, retain and promote female talent.

Key questions the panels addressed included:

  • Do we still even need women’s initiatives?  
  • Is there a business case?
  • Do these programs actually work? How do you measure success?  
  • What do women really want from these initiatives?
  • What kind of programming and training do women find most valuable?
  • How can we get more men involved?

Here are some of their answers.

Do we still need women’s initiatives?  

The answer:  Yes.  Catalyst presented a host of research and statistics around the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, including Catalyst Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Finance and Insurance.  

The higher up you go, the fewer women you find.   Other panelists echoed that same sentiment, that there was a fall off of female talent and a need to have a better way to identify and mentor talent.

Many financial companies I work with say they would like to attract and retain top female talent but that those women are too hard to find.   Creating more robust internal pipelines is one of the best solutions.

The contrarian view is that full equality has been reached and there is no need to give women “special treatment.”   Also, some women don’t want to be “separated out” because of their gender.  They may not want to participate in a women’s initiative.   

Which brings us to the next question….

Is there a business case?

The answer:   Yes. Catalyst once again presented evidence of why diversity matters.

The report shows that companies with more diversity perform better. The panelists also agreed that creating a diverse culture of inclusion was key to their success in attracting and retaining talent.   We also heard how bringing diverse perspectives to projects resulted in more innovative ideas and better problem solving.

There’s also the business case driven by demand for diversity from clients.  I am hearing more and more stories of financial clients (institutional and individual) who want to work with more diverse teams in order to insure the work is “representative, creative, robust, modern and relevant.”

Do these programs actually work?  How do you measure success?

The answer:  It varies.  I heard a lot of success stories.   Some companies pointed to specific metrics of a greater representation of women in management positions.   Some companies pointed to program attendance numbers continuing to increase and positive reviews from attendees.   Other companies pointed to highly successful mentorship programs.   Other companies conducted unconscious bias workshops that resulted in improved employee evaluation scores (from both male and female employees) after the workshops.   

There were also discussions about why programs were NOT successful.  Those reasons included:

  • Support from the top but not from middle management
  • Lack of clear success metrics
  • Stereotyping of women in the programming – not enough inclusion of women of color, too much focus on stereotypical issues like “work/life balance” and lack of male management participation

Which brings us to the final questions and main take away….

What kind of programming do women really want and how can we get more men involved?

The answer:  Business development and career advancement, including access to male managers.  

I’ve had the privilege of speaking at and attending a lot of women’s initiative programs.  What the panelists shared was in alignment with my own experience.  Women want actionable advice about how they can develop themselves professionally and advance their careers.  They want to know how they are being perceived and evaluated.   (FYI:  I have done a decade of research on the differences in how men and women win and lose credibility. Yes, there are differences and understanding them can be key to your success.)

Which brings us to the most important takeaway…involving men.

The number one indicator for program success was when men were directly involved.  It can be as simple as asking them to be involved in the program, to participate in events and to become mentors.   Panelists shared that female program participation skyrocketed when a male manager was in attendance.  I also heard great results in pairing not only senior men with junior women but paring senior women with junior men as mentors.  Women’s initiatives work best when men and women both learn from each other.  

My take:  This is less about men vs. women, and more about helping companies identify employee potential, acknowledge new ideas and uncover problems they are currently missing because of lack of awareness of how their current systems are failing them.  Companies who are open to and who reward new perspectives are going to have a competitive advantage moving forward.

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan is the author of Selling Financial Services to Women – What Men Need to Know and Even Women Will Be Surprised to Learn. She is the co-author of The ... Web: Details