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Gender Diversity in Leadership: Why Simply Hiring More Women is Not the Answer

Learn why hiring more women is not the answer to increasing gender diversity in leadership and how to make your succession planning efforts more inclusive.

Italy is officially the winner of this year’s Euro championship and their journey to the top has been one to watch. In one of the matches, I noticed how Italy’s coach, Mancini, substituted the goalkeeper, albeit for a short time. That is something I haven’t seen often as it is mostly a trend with strikers or defenders. Curiously, I went on to read about it a little more. Turns out that Mancini had used all but one of his 26-man squad in guiding Italy to victory. Naturally, I couldn’t help but notice that when the stakes are so high, the players on the bench, are at par with the playing 11 of the team. In case a player is indisposed, it is upon the coach to call on the best substitute to take their place. The substitute then comes on to the field almost seamlessly and it becomes clear, that this is the moment he has been training for. It goes without saying that if the players on the bench are untrained, are not ready or have been selected on the team not based on their skills but other attributes, a winning game can easily turn into a lost cause.

As an HR professional, I naturally extend this to the world of work. A question we often ask our clients is that if a key player of yours decides to leave, do you have a pool of ready substitutes? Someone who can come and play to win? An even tougher question to ask is, are there any women leaders in that pool?

Having more women on your team has financial benefits for your organization—it is an open secret. Gender-diverse teams outperform others in regard to financial performance by 15-%. Numerous studies have attributed these outcomes to the diversity of inputs in the form of creativity, empathy, and customer focus, that women bring to the table.

Yet, a global study from 2020 finds only 20% women find representation in senior leadership roles across organizations. The number drops even further when representation from minority groups is in question.

Furthermore, one out of four women are thinking about or have already downsized or moved out of the workforce entirely due to increased house-hold responsibilities.

While organizations often have their succession plans in order, it is likely that in the future they would have even fewer women to promote internally. If we put this in context, any progress made by organizations to maintain a semblance of balance at the top of the pyramid is going to be lost.

Typically, in the case of succession planning, organizations often use managers rating on potential, 360-degree/180-degree surveys, talent review discussions to arrive at decisions. Almost all these processes are perception based, therefore, prone to biases.

That is why simply hiring more women is not the answer to increasing gender diversity in leadership—it is part of the solution, but definitely not the whole solution. You need to create a system and culture that support women so they can reach their potential.

Only 20% women find representation in senior leadership roles across organizations, and the number drops even further when representation from minority groups is in question.

Building a more inclusive succession planning

If you are keen to build a more inclusive bench that focuses on merit and potential, here are a list of actions we recommend you can take to start the journey:

  • Identify potential early-on (look beyond the 2-year horizon): At the junior management levels we find the gender ratios to be less skewed. When potential is identified (and communicated) early on in women’s careers, dropout rate is lower as they see a long-term investment from the organization in their career.
  • For each critical role identify 2 females for every male employee: Men are twice more likely to raise their hand for a stretch role, even if they are not entirely ready as compared to women. Furthermore, a combination of structural, social and self-imposed constraints prevents women from aiming for these aspirational roles. This is truly about building ‘equity’ and not necessarily ‘equality’. Having a greater number of women successors for each role increases the likelihood that when the time comes, there will be an internal candidate to fill in the position.
  • Role-focused experiences: SHL’s award winning research on leadership success surfaced a set of 27 contextual challenges which leaders face. Women were found to have a stronger personality fit to 21 of the 27 challenges when compared to their male counterparts despite men having had more past experiences contextually. Clearly, women miss out on gaining the right set of experiences. The organizations can provide the right set of developmental experiences- shadowing, mentoring, industry exposures, etc. for them to effectively navigate role challenges when required to.
  • Focus on the ‘hidden gems’: Women often lose out in the traditional approaches where managers (regardless of their gender) have to rate on future potential, as masculine traits are often perceived more favorably as leadership traits. Relying on third-party objective data to arrive at potential for leadership roles is likely to provide you with an input on the ‘hidden gems’ who otherwise would have missed out. It is not surprising that hiring costs are reduced to half when you expand your pool of successors to include hidden internal talent.

Ensuring an inclusive succession planning is crucial if you want to improve your leadership diversity. So, merely hiring an underrepresented gender is not the final solution to gender diversity issue. In part 2 of this blog, we will share with you more around how organizations are leveraging technology-based solutions to effectively increase their leadership pipeline. So, stay tuned and watch this space for the upcoming insights.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about our research in gender diversity in leadership, you can check our Leadership & Diversity Whitepapers

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Shivangi Shukla

Shivangi is a Senior Consultant at SHL India. She has worked in the Human Capital space both across both industry and consulting roles. As a talent advisor to clients, her key areas of focus have largely centered around talent assessments, leadership development & diversity and inclusion. She has supported clients across industries such as large Indian conglomerates, manufacturing, IT/ITes, FMCG, telecom, retail, and tech start-ups. She has a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Delhi University and has graduated in Psychology from Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University.

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Shagun Thakur

Shagun Thakur is an associate in SHL. She is a post-graduate of Psychosocial clinical studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She also has training in life coaching, hypnosis, and NLP. Her keen interest in understanding the inner workings of people have led her to previously work in counseling/ clinical setups.

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