• Emily Howe

7 Steps to Make Sure Your Women's Initiative Doesn't Flop - Before it Even Makes an Impact.

Even the most well-respected companies and the smartest, most eager women's advocates launch corporate gender initiatives that don't end up getting off the ground or that flicker out before making any real difference.


As a lifelong advocate for women's progress - and as a corporate gender strategist who has helped dozens of companies secure real progress - it pains me to see how often very well-meaning gender inclusion initiatives:


  • Are warm-and-fuzzy, but not ineffective (like women's mentorship circles) in creating the systemic change that improves conditions for women

  • Lose sight of what's really stalling progress for women in the workplace (hint: it's not "the talent pipeline" or women's negotiation skills)

  • Focus "just on gender" in ways that elevate the experiences of white women at the cost of leaving behind their women of color (and other "first, only, or different") colleagues

  • Leave their initiative leaders burnt out, feeling confused about progress and/or thinking they are "doing lots of things to help women" while the opposite is true

  • Add to confusion and "diversity fatigue" at companies, and worse, allow companies to feel that their "gender inclusion box is checked for this year" when nothing has changed


7 keys to launching a successful women/work initiative:

To ensure the sustainable, enterprise-wide progress working women at all levels deserve, here are my recommendations based on decades in the trenches - and deep in the research numbers - on what makes women's initiatives succeed. (And what makes their leaders burn out.)


1. Start with what the current research says about women/work.

Missing the mark, prominent women in business organizations regularly send members polls asking if we feel women are making progress in the American workplace. Similarly, corporate women's groups often host lunch discussions wondering the same thing - skipping over the facts, and relying on hunches about what's wrong and murky guestimates of solutions.

The good news is: there’s no need to guess what works to make workplaces safer, fairer, and more welcoming. Or to get burned out trying to make progress.

Like with other pressing business challenges - like retaining millennial employees - gender inclusion deserves serious attention. And that means starting with serious research on the subject. The following well-respected studies are great sources (among many, many others):

Catalyst determines the root causes of and solutions for gender gaps by using fact-based, scientific methods—including longitudinal panels and large-scale field studies.McKinsey's annual study on women in the workplace - the largest, most comprehensive, most respected on the topic - tells us exactly what holds women back in the workplace (and what doesn't) their study points to the very solutions needed.Also, Harvard Business Review's roundup of women/workplace research can be found in a digital section devoted to research on women in business.


[ If you have other favorite sources, please leave them in the comments. ]


2. Then, look at your company's data.

You wouldn't believe how many companies are not taking stock, numerically, of how women are doing at their company. When I initially meet with even the most data-oriented business leaders, and ask them about their gendered rates of promotion or attrition, they (very) often don't know.


To understand where the women in your company are specifically getting stuck - or encountering "broken rungs" on their career ladder in your organization, start by looking at HR/people data (from recruiting to promotions to attrition rates), engagement/climate surveys, and legal numbers. And make pinpointed interventions based on what the research says works from the birds-eye view, and in order to solve what's broken for the women at your company.


Looking at the global research and your company numbers will help you avoid the costly mistake of pumping out trainings or launching initiatives that your company might not even need - and exhausting your people... while not fixing your actual issues.


3. Get strategic; align your corporate women's initiatives.

Link up your initiatives. If we harnessed the power of all of the various women's recruiting and mentoring initiatives, girl boss conferences, working women's leadership ventures, etc.. or even just the gender initiatives happening within one company - we might have equity in the workplace by now. But too many are working in disconnected silos. You can often make more progress by taking stock of what your company already has (from recruiting initiatives in HR to women in leadership efforts at the C-suite), understanding their progress and helping them push through roadblocks - rather than starting something new.


Set targets; don't just "do lots of stuff." Too many well-intentioned people are going with their gut on what working women need, launching initiatives that have few targets and, thus unknowable progress. The efforts all come from a good place: making things better for women. (But what things? And which women? And how will we know if it's working? Especially when we need to prove we need (more) funding?) Women's initiatives lead to burnout when there’s a lot of work going on - but no identifiable progress towards a specific goal, so set a specific goal and track your progress.


4. Ignore the myths that often stall progress.

Turn "We're trying everything to hire more women" into actually hiring more women. I regularly meet heavy-hitting recruiters and hiring managers who want to bring in more talented women but can't quite crack that nut. A simple shift can help you push for change where it matters. Harvard's landmark article proves that if you don't have at least two female candidates in your hiring pool (#twointhepool) there's statistically almost no chance a woman will be hired. (Of course there are outliers, but we're trying to make progress for the majority of women here). Ignoring this research leads people with good intentions to spend a lot of energy getting one woman interviewed at a time - to rarely see her get hired. You can pretty quickly increase your numbers of female hires once you turn this research into a hiring policy of not closing the search until you have #twointhepool. It also works the same way for under-represented minorities.

Ignoring this leads people (often with very good intentions) to spend a lot of energy getting one woman interviewed at a time - to rarely see her get hired.

Turn "There's a pipeline problem" into "We're hacking the pipeline." Too many tech, sales, and engineering VPs tell me they have given up on gender inclusion (given the above results with recruiting one woman at a time with few results, it's not hard to see why frustration occurs). They tell me they can't do more because there's a "pipeline problem." Sure, the data shows us that girls (and kids of color of all genders) less frequently pursue the computer science programs that often feed tech. What's true is that the tech community can't solve the under-representation of women all at once; in that sense, there is a "pipeline problem" overall for the field. However, every tech company is not trying (intelligently or in earnest) to solve the problem. So your individual company - with your X number of open positions - absolutely could hire all women if you wanted to. Or at least 50% - to reflect the population. Or even 18% - to represent women graduating with computer science degrees: which would still represent an uptick in the percentage of women on most engineering teams, for example. Think local to rise above this challenge.


5. Help women "lean in" & rise up together: where it counts.

Confidence and negotiation seminars are often unhelpful. Women's employee resource groups (ERGs) distract companies from progress on gender inclusion when they focus much of their time on hosting inspiring lunch talks on how to negotiate and "lean in" more. These events miss the mark outside of providing a warm feeling of connection - nice, but they don't move the needle on women's progress up the career ladder. Research shows that women are just as ambitious as their male colleagues - and Black women even more so - and don't need inspiring lunches any more than their male peers. Furthermore, McKinsey's 2018 study showed that most women are already negotiating and "leaning in" as much as their male peers. Hence, it's not women's lack of confidence holding them back, but rather structural barriers like middle managers who overlook talented women at promotion time. To work on issues that are actually stalling women at work, ERGs need to shift their focus to making systemic policy changes (like pushing for #twointhepool, above) and giving unconscious bias training to middle managers.

It's not women's lack of confidence holding them back, but rather structural barriers like managers who underpromote talented women.

Women mentoring women isn't good enough. Here's the thing: mentoring helps people get ahead when their mentor is in a powerful position. But, as the publication date of this article, most companies do not have very many women in top leadership roles. Women only hold 38 percent of manager roles. And, we've all heard reports that there are more men named John who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than women of any name in that role. In tech, finance, law, and other male-majority industries women face even more headwinds. Also, even if you can snag a high powered woman mentor, women at the top are already over-saturated with requests for mentorship from nearly every other woman in the company. More women can rise faster and farther by getting mentored by men; people starting/leading mentorship initiatives should expand mentorship to include leaders of all genders


6. Do more than nod at women of color.

Too often white women say, "I know this data/initiative/speech doesn't apply fully to women of color; their experience is different." And then they move on to talk about elevating (white) women in leadership. In today's multicultural, multi-layered world, women of Color and white women are working in two very different worlds (HBR). Lifting up women in the workplace means lifting up all women in the workplace: women of Color, queer/transgender women, women who also have disabilities, working mothers, etc... Looking at the issue of gender inclusion must be done through an intersectional lens. For starters: McKinsey's 2019 study on women in the workplace details the ways in which women's workplace experiences are not universal. Next: when looking at company data, splice your numbers also by race - so you can see the complexities of the issues and the experiences of women of all Colors- and track any solutions along both race and gender axes.

Lifting up women in the workplace means lifting up all women in the workplace.

7. Host women's leadership events that do more than stir the pot.

Avoid false experts on gender. Conference planners often (helpfully) host a session on "how to make your company better for women," but (unhelpfully) select speakers whose only qualification is that they are women. Asking random women to speak on solving corporate gender imbalances is not a setup for success for either the speaker (whose expertise is their field of tech or energy or architecture...not strategic gender inclusion and organizational change) nor is it a setup for success for the audience who needs seasoned advice on how to make real, sustained improvements on gender inclusion. A woman's individual, personal experience as a woman might be insightful for her therapist, but to help large groups of women, you need research on large groups of women - which we have. You can find a speaker who has helped dozens of companies from the birds-eye view -via a research-based methodology. (Catalyst, Paradigm, Apres, Critical Diversity Solutions, Jennifer Brown Consulting, TrainXtra, Worklife Law, and the American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists - the latter of which I founded - are good places to start.

Asking random women in leadership to speak on solving corporate gender imbalances is not a setup for success...

[ Please add your additional suggestions below in the comments. Please focus on speakers who consider gender inclusion from an intersectional lens. ]


Stop telling women to "just ignore bias." A popular narrative - especially among trailblazing senior and retired women giving speeches or writing books meant to inspire junior women - is that they never experienced much bias; they say that the key to their success is just ignoring bias and focusing on the work. (I find it hard to believe that these "female firsts" in fields like law, tech, and medicine didn't experience bias, but I leave their interpretations to them.) Telling women to "just ignore bias" not only ineffective and counter-productive but frankly offensive. The majority of people for whom workplace bias is a real obstacle deserve concrete facts on how to outsmart disrespect, address micro-aggressions gracefully and with finality, and understand (from research) how to take proper action when underpaid or overlooked for promotion. For most women, sticking our heads in the sand would only keep us in junior positions - allowing disrespect to flourish.

Telling women to "just ignore bias" is not only ineffective and counter-productive but frankly offensive.

Avoid burnout & diversity fatigue: focus on what's proven.

We owe it to ambitious women of all colors - and to businesses - to get women/work initiatives right. 


The very good news is: there’s no need to guess what works to make workplaces safer, fairer, and more welcoming - when there's plenty of good research out there already. And there are plenty of great companies leading the way.


Let's start there. And make progress quickly - without causing burnout or "diversity fatigue" among the cool women and companies leading these initiatives and the good allies we have throughout companies.


If you need help making sense of your women's initiative, email the Association to be connected with an expert who can advise you on your work in progress - or help you build a full, cohesive strategy.



©2021 American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists