It seems like a highly complex and potentially insurmountable problem. Even after decades of hard work and progress toward gender parity in the workforce, we still see reports of disappointingly low numbers of U.S. women in senior leadership roles. Despite the fact that women represent more than half the country’s population, earn more than 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and an even higher percentage of master’s degrees, women represent a mere five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. We are only seven percent of top executives in Fortune 100 companies, and just 26.5 percent of executives, senior officials and managers overall. These statistics come from a 2018 fact sheet published by the Center for American Progress, and demonstrate the severity of the problem that faces us.
I’m an entrepreneur and CEO of a successful fashion retail business called Pink Lily, and I’m also a woman who would like to live long enough to see us close the leadership gender gap. I’d like to see more businesses investing serious time, personnel and resources into the development, engagement and empowerment of their future women leaders. To help my fellow business owners and leaders to approach this seemingly Herculean task, I’ve got a series of suggestions worth considering.
1. Take time to develop female talent.
Professional development and filling the pipeline toward senior leadership begins with hiring, onboarding and training practices. According to CareerBuilder, 36 percent of U.S. employers lack a structured onboarding process for new hires, and based on anecdotal information all around us – that number may be even higher than reported. At Pink Lily, we go to great lengths to begin intensive training and development from day one on the job, but we still have room for improvement in this area. Every employer does. When a woman or any employee enters your workforce, she should be funneled through a well-orchestrated system for ongoing training, mentorship, community engagement and development. In addition to establishing strong onboarding and training programs, this might mean pairing employees with mentors and/or sponsors who will meet regularly with them to discuss career trajectory and answer questions, as well as connecting employees to ongoing professional development resources and opportunities – and allowing them the time away from their daily jobs to take advantage of those opportunities.
2. Engage women with fulfilling work.
While hiring, onboarding, training and development are hugely important – all this work will be for naught if your business fails to retain its talented women employees. Recent data shows that women are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate, and suggests that the factors contributing to this trend include frustration with promotion opportunities and unsatisfying work-life balance. I’ve definitely watched friends depart jobs for this reason, especially around the time they have children and have to navigate a new set of responsibilities. Between the shockingly high costs of childcare, the number of home-based chores that still fall largely on the shoulders of women, and the lackluster options for maternity and family leave – it’s really no wonder we’re seeing women opting out of the workforce during this challenging time of life. And when we lose women mid-career, we lose their future potential as well. A woman with fantastic growth opportunity – who may have someday been a contender for a C-suite role – will never reach that eventuality without being nurtured and engaged through this interim period of her work life. This is why we must enact more flexible and accommodating policies and programs for our working mothers. If we don’t, we’ll continue losing them and all the benefits they would have brought in the future.
3. Empower women to problem-solve.
If businesses are able to successfully hire, onboard, train, develop, engage and retain talented women, there will likely still be a need for one final push into senior leadership opportunities. From what I’ve seen, I can confidently say that C-suite roles and senior executive positions don’t just happen to people – instead, those people are nurtured, sponsored and empowered to enter those roles. It’s a process that can take years, and it requires buy-in from the uppermost leaders within an organization. The Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED), a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy organization recently published an in-depth report filled with specific guidance on filling the female talent pipeline to solve the leadership gap, and I strongly recommend this report as a jumping-off point to every one of my fellow CEOs. Among the many ideas encompassed in the report are two suggestions that really spoke to me – first, the need to educate men at all levels of our business community about this pervasive problem and its potential solutions, in order to gain their support and investment, and second, the need for more formal and structured sponsorship programs to personally guide women into roles at the top of their organizations. These are the kinds of steps that will truly empower women to reach their full potential as leaders.
When every company – whether it’s a startupor long-established – directs funding, work hours and passionate people toward these specific strategies, that’s when we’ll see measurable progress toward gender equity at work. This issue will not simply solve itself, we must wholeheartedly devote ourselves to working together to be the solution.