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The Gender Say Gap – the missing piece in the Female Talent Pipeline debate.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

I’m fortunate to have a helicopter view of the gender debate. As I engage with senior women from all manner of industries, I hear two key themes emerging:

  1. Diversity champions in male dominated industries like tech, energy and finance are saying the same: we want to attract and retain more female talent, but we don’t know how.
  2. More gender balanced industries like healthcare, law, professional services, pharma, or media, are finding leaks in the pipeline: we attract 50% women or higher at junior levels, but at C-suite level we’re down to 25-35%. (See the McKinsey – LeanIn Women in the Workplace report for the data)

Both are big, systemic issues that have been centuries in the making. What interests me are the solutions – and I’m spotting an angle that’s been neglected.

Plenty of focus has gone into attracting & retaining female talent (e.g. see PwC’s report on inclusive recruitment), with issues like equal pay, gender bias and flexible working conditions topping the to-do list.

But much less attention has gone into what the excellent Claire Mason of Man Bites Dog describes as the ‘Gender Say Gap.’ This is the gap in visibility and voice between men and women in the workplace. These are some real-life scenarios I hear from senior women:

  1. My female team members rarely speak up in meetings, in contrast to their male peers, who always seem to have an opinion.
  2. At our last company conference, there wasn’t a single female leader.
  3. When I go into a leadership team meeting, the atmosphere is so aggressive, that I don’t feel like speaking.
  4. Meetings are often so full of B.S. and posturing. That’s not me, I can’t do it.
  5. We ask our female leaders to speak, but they turn down opportunities.
  6. If you have to boast to get recognised, I’d rather not get recognised, thank you.
  7. It feels arrogant to myself forward as an expert – there must be many other people who are more qualified to speak on that subject. If I’m the expert, someone will ask me to speak.
  8. To be a speaker at our company conference, you have to be some kind of showman – and that’s not me.
If these sound familiar to you, your organisation probably also has a Gender Say Gap.

So, what can you do about it? From where I’m sitting there are 4 stages where the Gender Say Gap is relevant to the female talent pipeline. I’m going to outline my observations and recommendations on each, based on my experience training women (and men) in leadership communications – please let me know what resonates and where you’d challenge my thinking.

1. Encouraging women to enter a male dominated industry

Human beings are drawn to environments where ‘people like me’ are thriving. We all need role models to show us a pathway – we become who we can see. The gender say gap here means we don’t have enough (if any) visible, vocal women acting as role models to draw more girls into male dominated careers. And when there are few women, there are fewer role models. Catch-22.

What you can do: Look for any and all potential female role models within your company and encourage them towards greater visibility. Put them on stage. Interview them. Showcase videos of them speaking about their careers and their work. Boast about them. It doesn’t cost much to get visible on LinkedIn, for example.

Remember that many women suffer from ‘Tiara Syndrome’, so they won’t necessarily put themselves forward unless they are invited and /or encouraged.

You might also think longer term and take your female staff on the road to speak to young people. We’re working together with a big tech firm to take their female leaders to schools, where they promote careers in technology to boys and girls from a young age.

It will take a few bold women to break the mould before more are able to step forward.

2. Career Early Stages: Gender Gap? What Gender Gap?

In my experience, most women in the early stages of their career (20-somethings) aren’t conscious of a gender say gap, or any gender gap at all. They’re just busy ‘getting on with it’. But we know that even if they don’t notice it, this is where the foundations are set.

Most women report being socialised as children to be nice to others (86%), to be a good student (86%) and to be helpful (77%) but comparatively few are socialised to be leaders (44%), or to express their opinions (34%) (numbers from this KPMG study).

Unless we counter this socialisation at early career stages, the female talent pipeline will continue to leak.

What you can do: My team and I have been experimenting for 10 years on how to develop confidence, voice and visibility in women and men. Our programmes were primarily designed by women, so we have naturally developed what you could see as a ‘feminine’ approach to leadership communications; emphasizing authenticity, empathy and service leadership, over ‘rules’ of how to be dominant in communication.

We’ve found four approaches to be particularly helpful for combatting the gender say gap in early stage women (although these are equally relevant to men too):

  1. Build courage in each person’s authentic voice; her opinions and her personal style. Encourage her to tell it as she sees it, without the sugar coating. Listen. For all the talk about diversity, it amazes me how little confidence women feel to express their critical thinking publicly, for fear of saying something wrong. If your women don’t feel heard, they’ll end up seeking somewhere else they do feel heard.
  2. Offer female friendly feedback. We find that whilst men respond well to challenging and critical feedback, women thrive when they’re loved. Offer feedback that affirms her strengths. Not the ‘Shit Sandwich’, but a genuine recognition of her unique personal strengths, followed by ‘stretch feedback’ of what ambitions you have for her growth as a future leader. Say it from your heart (if the idea doesn’t make you feel queasy!).
  3. Insist on her owning her strengths. In our experience, from feedback that’s 99% positive, women obsess about the 1% negative, so make sure she clearly gets the message of what she’s doing well – this will build her confidence. Make her ‘swallow’ (fully acknowledge) the feedback, rather than push it away. If this is done well, self-expression comes naturally; if I’m loved, I feel confident. If I feel confident, I will speak.
  4. Encourage a culture of ‘speaking before you’re ready’. Those women who have the ‘be a good student’ socialisation, tend to want to ‘submit their work’ only when it’s perfect. Of course, by the time it is ready, someone else has often nabbed the credit. Women often to need permission to not be perfect to feel comfortable speaking up. And this needs to start with you being willing to speak before you’re ready also.
3. Decision Time: Career vs family

As women enter their mid 30s, we often observe a dilemma forming, ‘do I push for my work ambitions, or fulfil my ambitions for family?’ Whilst most of us would hope that both are possible, that stats suggest this is still far from reality. Significant portions of women are still choosing family over the demand of senior management roles.

The gender say gap becomes increasingly evident here. By this age, our ‘good student’ women have been heads down and working for a decade or more, and perhaps have been passed over for opportunities (prestigious projects, promotions, speaking opportunities) in favour of more visible and vocal male counterparts. If you’re not careful, this, combined with maternal desires, can cause women to opt out of the race to the top and start to lean back from their career. This is the phenomena Lean In describes so successfully.

What you can do:

  1. Encourage forward role models for women (and men) who have navigated the complexity of family life balance. It’s important that women share their warts-and-all experiences, not just the usual, slick, ‘got-it-all-covered’ approach we are socialised to communicate as part of corporate life. Nobody ‘has it all covered’ – and until we speak about our experiences in an honest way, we’re signalling that you have to be a Superwoman to be successful. Combine this Superwoman thought with the female tendency to underestimate our abilities and no wonder women are opting out – we simply don’t think we match the criteria.

    My team and I are partnering with a law firm to do precisely this for a group of their female partners. They’re offering opportunities for their female leaders to publicly talk about their challenges and learnings en route to making partner. It’s both a huge support to realise that others are experiencing difficulties – and inspiring to those coming up the ranks.
  2. Build confidence in your female leaders’ personal style. Imagine going into a room where everyone but you has a particular personality style. And where that style is louder than you, more assertive than you and more opinionated than you. This is how many women either perceive, or experience the boardroom. One option for women is to adapt to this environment and mirror loud, assertive, opinionated behaviours. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Adaptation works for a certain portion of women. But there have also been a lot of women ‘getting out of the kitchen’, precisely because they don’t want to take on a personality that doesn’t feel natural to them.

    My team and I work on building the confidence in female leaders to be themselves, even in male dominated scenarios. We do this by mentoring and coaching women to understand and own their strengths, not asking them to change to fit an outdated formula*.

*(Non-alpha personal styles can not only be successful at a senior level, but are necessary for growth in the future world of work. If we’re going to think differently, we need different personalities in the room.)

4. Shooting for the top

Finally, I want to touch on my observations of the gender say gap at the very top of organisations. This HBR / INSEAD study (pictured below) highlighted that women are rated as equalling or exceeding men in all aspects of leadership, with the exception of one characteristic: having and articulating a vision.

Whilst there are many reasons why fewer women get to CEO, a lack of the willingness to have and express vision could be a significant one. We simply aren’t positioning ourselves as the direction-setters. Look at even Sheryl Sandberg as COO of Facebook, activating someone else’s vision rather than her own. Perhaps she is one of those 77% of women who have been socialised to be helpful, rather than to lead? Ok, I’m being provocative, but I think there’s something in it.

My work with female leaders is showing me that women are often reticent to put forward a bold, personal vision for the future, for fear that it might lack substance, for fear that someone might take offence, or for fear we might be laughed off stage.

At the same time, I believe that women have an important role to play in our world. I constantly meet women who hold inside them bold visions for a future that benefits whole communities, whole systems, rather than just individuals or customers. It’s this kind of inspiring, beyond-personal visionary thinking that’s going to shape our future, if we only let it.

What you can do:

  1. Encourage your leaders (men and women) to have visions. Expect it of them. Give them the space to speak about their vision. Make headspace in team members to listen.
  2. Give female leaders time and headspace outside of the daily grind to develop a vision. My team and I run a Vision Hunt process for senior women, for precisely this purpose – and the biggest challenge is getting the women to set time aside to do it. It’s the classic trope that you hear a lot in the entrepreneurial world; ‘Are you working IN your business, or ON it?’ Too many of our female leaders are immersed IN their business, without lifting up to see where they, and the people they lead, are heading.

In summary, the gender say gap is affecting multiple parts of the female talent pipeline and there are very practical things that can be done to increase women’s visibility and voice.

More than this, there’s a huge advantage of having visible female leaders right now. The media and conference organisers are desperate for more female voices – and you may just find that yours is the organisation that gets heard more when you put your female leaders forward.

If you’d like to discuss how working on your gender say gap can boost your female talent pipeline, please get in touch.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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