While traditionally male-dominated industries have made considerable headway in tackling blatant gender-based discrimination, there is still a degree of unconscious gender bias inherent in the traditions and cultural expectations of many businesses which can hold women back.
Women are still under-represented in the C-suite levels and on the majority of executive boards, and many feel they have to work harder to be offered the same opportunities and to achieve the same recognition as a male counterpart.
While diversity training can be beneficial, it is not a quick fix, according to Kim Waller, EVP at Chicago-based Willis Towers Watson.
“The first step towards gender equality is for businesses to explicitly stand up and say that it is an important issue to them, but change requires constant reinforcement,” she said. “Most major companies have made some statement around commitment to diversity and many have initiated training, but what’s vital is how leaders reinforce that in the way they show up and manage people every day, and the methods they use to eradicate that bias.
“Just because we’ve had awareness training that may have lasted a couple of hours, it doesn’t mean we will automatically reframe how we think about things,” she added. “Changing our behaviour and our pattern of thought is difficult and it takes time.”
Widening the pool for selection of talent is key, in order to open doors to women and other diverse groups. Businesses will also benefit from having a range of perspectives and backgrounds in decision-making positions.
“It really comes down to being able to have the best talent at the table,” said Waller. “If you always go to your standard cohort of people within your trusted circle, that circle may not be diverse.
“The challenges of today are not going to be the challenges of tomorrow and companies are often blindsided because they don’t have the right leaders at the table to give a balanced perspective,” she added.
Waller advises women to develop a personal set of trusted advisors, and be sure to include other females in that set. Having a sponsor to recommend you for opportunities is vital but women also need to be their own advocates.
“Some of the obstacles lie in the narratives that women say to themselves,” said Waller. “We need to challenge ourselves to overcome that self-doubt and speak up.”
Willis Towers Watson helps firms build relationships with minority and women-owned business enterprises.