Michelle Redfern 5 ways to close the leadership gender gap
5 Ways to Close the Leadership Gender Gap

I was recently interviewed by marketing and branding expert Debbie Laskey about how to close the leadership gender gap. Here is our conversation which first appeared on Debbie’s blog on International Women’s Day 2022.

QUESTION: You are a passionate advocate for women in business and leadership, so how can women earn more top leadership positions as CEOs, COOs, CFOs, Board Chairs, etc.?

MICHELLE REDFERN: Women need an equal playing field for a start. All of us must examine, and then potentially change our mindsets about the roles that women play in society. To quote Ruth Bader-Ginsberg;

“Women belong in all the places where decisions are made.”

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Therefore, eliminating gender stereotypes about women’s work is essential. Women still perform more than 75% of the world’s unpaid labour, which includes caring for children and elders. More equitable distribution of labour in the home will result in greater women’s workforce participation. The increase in women in the workforce will create vastly deeper talent pools for organisations to draw from and will benefit society economically.

QUESTION: Janet Yellen, the current and first female Secretary of the Treasury, has been described as, “A proven leader who knows how to build consensus, the kind of person who makes everybody around her better.” What three characteristics are necessary to create a consensus-builder?

MICHELLE REDFERN: Being noted as a consensus builder is a lazy way of placing Ms Yellen in the “acceptable behaviour for women” box.  Women are expected to behave in certain ways, building consensus, being agreeable and likable. When women break free from those behavioural stereotypes, they can be punished. If they behave in line with those standards, they are often viewed as “not promotable.”

Check out what is called THE DOUBLE BIND here:

So, I do not think that, in the context of gender equality, advising women to strive for consensus is helpful. Let’s instead, ask them to develop the skills to challenge the status quo and drive innovation, continuous improvement, and to have a sustainable impact on their organisations. Even better advice would be to advise women to learn and apply our three-part leadership definition:

“Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others.”

Susan Colantuono

TWEET THIS: Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others. ~@RedfernMichelle #LeadershipTip #EmployeeExperence #EmployerBranding #DebbieLaskeysBlog

QUESTION: What recommendations do you have for personnel/hiring/staffing departments to hire more qualified women, and then promote them?

MICHELLE REDFERN: Big question! The first thing to do is to recognise that it is not solely the role of the HR department to address gender inequality in the organisation. The Board, CEO, and all leaders in the organisation must consider closing the leadership gender gap as a business priority. Just like any other business priority, there is:

[1] a goal or target state,
[2] a strategy to achieve the target state,
[3] a plan to deliver on the strategy,
[4] resources assigned to implement the plan.
[5] Leaders are held accountable for the successful delivery of the plan.
Yes, the HR department’s hiring practices may well be part of the plan, but the rest of the business needs to also do the heavy lifting!!!

TWEET THIS: All leaders in an organisation must consider closing the leadership gender gap as a business priority. ~@RedfernMichelle #LeadershipTip #EmployeeExperence #EmployerBranding #DebbieLaskeysBlog

QUESTION: In one of your blog posts written during the covid pandemic entitled, “How leaders can create workplace cultures that are better for working women,” you suggested that the following question be asked during board and/or executive team meetings: “Do the board and the executive team regularly review the representation and lived experience of women in the workplace?” Can you please elaborate?

MICHELLE REDFERN: The context for this question comes from my own experience as a woman, an executive leading organisations and now, someone who advises Boards, CEOs, and Executives on how to close the leadership gender gap. Over my 40+ years working in organisations, I saw many initiatives launched that were purportedly going to address gender inequality in the workplace. These initiatives more often than not fell/fall into the “Fixing Women” category which meant giving women mentoring, sending them to conferences, courses, or programs. None of these initiatives has worked and has failed to address the systemic barriers that exist for women in workplaces. Each workplace has its own culture, ways of work, and each woman in those workplaces will have had unique lived experiences. Rather than throwing investment and effort at initiatives that have failed to deliver, I want leaders to spend time listening to the women in their organisations so that they can hear exactly what it is like, for women, to navigate the workplace dynamics that exist. By doing so, leaders will have a much better understanding of how to address the barriers and behaviours that hold women back.

QUESTION: In one of your blog posts written during the pandemic entitled, “How Equitable and Inclusive is Your Organisation? (Do you really know?),” you listed six questions for leaders about leading for equity and inclusion. They follow below for context. After leaders answer these questions, what three things do you recommend they do to improve their corporate culture so that it reflects diversity, equity, and inclusion?
1. Do you know how your employees really feel about your organization?
(If you read this question and answered “no”, isn’t it time you asked?)
2. And even if the answer was “yes,” do you really know?
3. Do you know how your employees are experiencing your organization’s culture?
4. Do they feel included?
5. Are your company’s leaders demonstrating inclusive behaviour?
6. Do your employees see them demonstrating inclusive behaviour?

MICHELLE REDFERN: Make DEI a critical business priority: DEI is not nice to have, it is an enabler of sustainable high performing organisations. Make a visible, vocal commitment.
[1] Confront your organisation’s brutal truths. Obtain the data to establish the status quo for DEI (where are we now?) communicate to the organisation where you are now and where you aim to be, by when.
[2] Hold leaders accountable to deliver on the DEI vision, strategy, and plan.

QUESTION: Which three women leaders inspire you, from business or history, and why?

MICHELLE REDFERN: Here are my three:
[1] Professor Marcia Langton. Marcia is one of Australia’s most respected Indigenous Academics. She is a remarkable woman who is fearless in her pursuit of both knowledge and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women. Each time I hear her speak, I am inspired to do more and be better for our First Nations women in Australia.
[2] Susan Colantuono: Founder of Leading Women and my co-host of A Career that Soars. Susan consistently inspires me to think deeply about the issues that affect all women, and especially women of colour, and to develop actionable insights for organisational leaders as well as be generous with my time and effort for women who need me.
[3] Julia Gillard: Australia’s first and thus far, only woman Prime Minister. She inspired me and millions of other women when she came to power when she was enduring the awful misogyny and sexism during her term as PM and of course, like so many other women, I was inspired by her famous Misogyny Speech.  Her work on a global level to create gender equality and stand up for the rights of women everywhere is outstanding.

QUESTION: One of my favourite leadership quotes is from author and consultant Mark Herbert (@NewParadigmer on Twitter): “Leadership doesn’t require you to be the smartest person in the room. It requires you to block and tackle for others.” What does this quote mean to you?

MICHELLE REDFERN: I really love that quote as it reminds me of my approach to leadership. Leaders must be both a bulldozer and a barrier. Firstly, they need to bulldoze through the BS that keeps their people and organisations from being successful. That means being open to hearing about barriers, things that don’t work well and then set about fixing them. Secondly, leaders must be a barrier to BS. There is just some stuff that our people and our organisations need to be shielded from so that each individual and then the organisation collectively can reach their full potential.  

About Debbie Laskey
Image Credits: Debbie Laskey and Imad Clicks via WordSwag app.

About Michelle