Create a Culture Where Female Leaders Can Thrive

 -  12/3/12

Investing in ways to recruit, retain and develop women is not only a fair business practice, it is smart business. These three initiatives can help.

It has been an uphill battle to make room for women at the top. With Yahoo's appointment of Marissa Mayer, only 20 women — and that’s a record high — are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Though some progress has been made on this front, organizations can still do more to recruit, retain and develop women leaders because, as the numbers show, there’s a correlation between having more women in the boardroom and improved performance.

A Catalyst study comparing Fortune 500 companies in the bottom versus top quartile in terms of women’s representation on the board showed that the top quartile organizations outperformed the bottom by 53 percent more returns on equities, 42 percent more return on sales and 66 percent more return on invested capital.

Investing in ways to recruit, retain and develop women is not only a fair business practice, it is smart business. Here are three initiatives any organization can implement to create a culture where female leaders can thrive:

Cultivate community. Women excel through social support networks. Organizations can provide tools to facilitate a sense of community and support to develop female leaders. There are different ways that this can be done, and it should always be tailored to the unique culture within an organization.

One successful tactic is to sponsor and support employee resource groups for women. These groups offer a space for discussion and information to propel women in their careers. Mentoring programs can link female leaders with other female employees who are interested in pursuing similar career paths. Through sharing stories, experiences and advice, women can learn from success stories and avoid making the same mistakes. These relationships further develop female leaders and retain high-potential candidates for leadership roles.

Develop a diverse leadership culture. To attract and encourage women to pursue higher positions, it behooves companies to walk the talk and actually have women in senior-level positions. When female up-and-comers are able to see female role models attaining executive-level positions, it shows the possibility and demonstrates the company’s support of a diverse leadership culture.

An organization does not need to have a female CEO to demonstrate a genuine commitment to women’s career advancement. Women in leadership roles should span across the organization and across functions. Organizations can consider having advisory committees that appoint women to review challenges faced by female employees and suggest appropriate action to resolve issues.

Leverage technology. Technology should not only be used as a tool for employees to connect with one another, but also as a way to recruit potential employees. New technologies are available to facilitate employee communication like never before. Internal social networking sites allow for women to connect, communicate and collaborate with one another.

Organizations can pilot programs where women create webcasts for other women that are inspiring and informative on a variety of workplace topics such as leadership, communication, professional development and goal setting. Additionally, online training programs to help the workforce appreciate gender differences and leverage distinct strengths can also help develop a diverse leadership culture.

In addition to these initiatives, by offering progressive policies on maternity leave and work-life balance, organizations can better attract and retain a high-potential female talent pool. It’s not enough to create spaces for collaboration, information and social support; organizations need to track their initiatives and measure progress to ensure fair and equitable promotion of both genders.

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