Making ways to promote and retain female leaders
Owners of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have a lot on their plates, and I would guess that, for many of them, worrying about how to maintain gender diversity among their senior leaders can feel like a distant priority.
Last year, the Peterson Institute for International Economics surveyed nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 different countries and found that the more female leaders these businesses had at senior levels, the higher levels of profitability they were able to deliver to shareholders. It isn’t just about picking a woman as CEO; what made a more significant difference to profits was having women in various “C-level” jobs, having them serve on the board of directors, and putting in place family leave policies and robust anti-discrimination measures.
Catalyst, another research firm, has concluded that the vital element for companies hoping to capture these gains is to have a critical mass of senior women in place.
The business case for fostering gender equity would seem clear. Companies of all sizes have an interest in building and maintaining a reputation of being a good place to work, attracting top-tier talent, and minimizing turnover.Capturing these benefits at SMEs
Of course, the challenges confronting women in small and medium-sized businesses differ greatly — I know it from my involvement with Professional Business Women of California (PBWC). Founded in 1989 by U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, PBWC has grown into one of the largest women’s organizations in the world and promotes the professional and personal growth of women through community events, training workshops, conferences, mentoring and motivation.
The smaller a company, for example, the less likely it is to possess the kind of infrastructure that makes it easier for women to thrive and progress in their careers. Human resources departments can be smaller, for example, and too preoccupied with routine matters to develop gender equity policies.
Some solutions can be straightforward, however. Companies can develop policies offering talented female executives generous maternity leave, and enabling new mothers to return to work without putting them (even unofficially) on a “mommy track.” They can remove some of the factors that disadvantage women job applicants, such as making resume name and gender “blind.”
Even a small business can be sure that its human resources manager belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management (or other professional bodies) and has access to networking opportunities. Thus when the HR leader bumps into a problem he or she hasn’t encountered before, the small HR team can look to peers for advice.
Some of the onus will fall on the CEO and other leaders, too, in a smaller firm. It’s not like the board decides one day that gender equity would be a good idea, and it magically materializes as résumés come flooding in the door. Within smaller companies, it’s critical for managers at all levels to “buy in” to this vision and understand the reasons why gender diversity will be a boon for the company, for their divisions, and for them, personally.The quest for mentors
It’s important for younger executives to have mentors, and many smaller companies may not yet have had women in top-tier positions who can serve as mentors for their young and promising female colleagues.
One way to solve this conundrum is to be sure that these women join trade groups and other associations, and network with other groups of professional women. The CEO could keep an eye open for one of the many courses or seminars aimed specifically at women hoping to hone their expertise in certain areas. Women professionals can use groups of all kinds – from the National Association of Business Economics or whatever industry group is appropriate to a local women’s business networking group.
The array of options for women entrepreneurs seeking support and advice has become particularly rich, even if the data still suggests that only a fraction of startups have female founders. To start with, the Small Business Administration offers training and counseling at more than 100 regional Women’s Business Centers. The National Association of Women Business Owners provides networking and educational opportunities as well as advocacy.
Having a mentor has been enormously beneficial in my career. I was mentored from the beginning of my life by a strong, independent-minded mother who taught me to take care of myself, go out, and get things done. She instilled in me a drive and focus that has served me well in every stage of my career.
I also had a professional mentor. Even though she was incredibly busy – and English wasn’t her first language – being able to watch and follow her example gave me new options for how to handle certain situations. And some of those solutions would never have occurred to me if I hadn’t been exposed to her leadership!
SME business leaders with the ability to recognize that they can get ahead of the curve by actively recruiting women, creating career paths for them, and redressing the gender imbalance will not only avoid ending up embarrassing themselves publicly, as firms like Uber and other Silicon Valley entities have done. They’ll also end up becoming admired models for their peers to follow and cultivating a new generation of even more effective leaders.