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The future of work for women: 3 takeaways from a DC panel

If employers today want to succeed, they will have to maximize the engagement and participation of women in the workplace. What are some leaders doing as they try to reach that critical goal? 

Those were some of the questions posed to a panel of HR executives and thought leaders yesterday in Washington, D.C., at a panel discussion called “The Future of Work.”

Ilya Bonic, senior partner and president of Mercer’s talent business, moderated the panel, asking each of the participants about what their organizations might be doing to achieve that goal, or what some of the “big picture” issues might be

The panel is part of Mercer’s When Women Thrive global research initiative, a call-to-action and platform featuring input from 600 companies representing 3.2 million employees. The report offers employees some key strategies that can drive their growth through women.

Sponsorship instead of mentorship

Bonic asked Christiane Bisanzio, group chief and diversity & inclusion officer, and head of HR for Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, at AXA, a global insurer, what her firm is doing to empower women.

“We know if we align our workforce with our buyer composition, it would be a competitive advantage,” Bisanzio said. “And the issue of wellbeing, for both financial and health, is becoming huge and relevant globally. We first have to become an employer of choice for women. We need to get it right internally, then look at taking it to the market.”

One way AXA is moving in that direction is through its women sponsorship program, she explained. “Whenever I hear the word mentoring, it’s like getting an electrical shock. Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored,” she noted.

Having said that, she said sponsorship can be quite dangerous, because you put your credibility on the line. But when successful, it really increases the chances for success and advancement. At AXA, there are currently 20 sponsorship programs globally, and they decided that sponsors get to choose the woman they want to sponsor.

“Typically sponsors expect HR to match or to suggest a sponsoree,” she says. “We absolutely don’t support that, they really have to pick the person they want to work with.”

She also mentioned resilience as a key leadership trait, so women at AXA in the company’s sponsorship programs receive resilience training. It’s working, as she reports 95% of the promotions of women at AXA are women out of the sponsorship program.

Using difference as an advantage

In response to a question from Bonic about the main leadership traits women need to pursue, Pamela Carlton, co-founder and principal researcher at the Everest Project, a two year exploration of successful women leading change and innovation, said “relational skills” surfaced.

“Not only are these women leading change, they are leading transformational change in organizations,” she said. “Women are building cultures of innovation, sustainable ones, and doing it with relational skills that are well known but unseen. I am on a mission to get companies to focus on them.”

The project interviewed 132 senior women across all industries and ethnic backgrounds, all within three levels of CEO. In addition, the project conducted interviews with two of their senior colleagues, so 400 total interviews in all.

Those relational skills include taking smart risks, using humility as a power tool (“Yes, a power tool,” she said), collaborating broadly across the organization (not to build consensus, because that’s what women are tagged for, but collaborating to make smart decisions,” she says) and, finally, using difference as an advantage.

“That means not only identifying how to use how they are different as a competitive advantage, but using role modeling and inviting others to bring in their differences as a competitive advantage,” she said.

The gender gap in leadership

Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the United Nation Fund’s Council of Women World Leaders, was asked why some industries are having more trouble attracting female talent than others.

“Every industry has some challenges,” she said. “At the macro level, you have the lack of match around what women are doing now and where the jobs are. But my observation is there has often been too much of a focus on what I would call the ‘Noah’s Ark approach’ to diversity. If we could only just get two of each in the ark, we will have our diversity.”

Part of the challenge is even if you are aware that you have to bring in the talent, awareness is a tailwind that moves you on. “But the challenge is the headwinds,” she said. “You see it in every industry, in differing degrees.”

She was talking about unconscious beliefs about who people are and about unconscious biases – most notably the archetype of a successful leader, which typically is a 6-foot or taller white man.

“If you are 5-9 or shorter and you walk into the room, nobody says leader until you prove it,” she said.

Kevin Lord, senior vice president and CHRO at TEGNA (formerly Gannett Inc.), a $6 billion news and information company, was asked about how the communications industry has a higher number of women compared to other sectors. How does that help Tegna with its diversity challenges?

Lord explained that, for example, TEGNA owns 46 television stations across the U.S., and it recognizes that it needs to represent those 46 communities, where local TV viewers predominantly are women.

“We really try hard to recruit talented young women from college campuses and we have been successful,” he said. “Our entry level training program right now is 70 percent women.”

But the higher you go in an organization, the fewer women that are present – even in fields like communications, where women have made strong pushes.

For example, as women rise to assistant producers, the goal is for them to become a general manager or station manager. But along the way “life happens,” and they may decide to change jobs, leave for other markets, etc.

“One of the things we are working on right now is what can we do to take some of the high potential women in the organization at that sensitive time in their careers, and see what can we do to accommodate them,” he said.

To that end, TEGNA has created a general manager development training program for women.

“While the statistics around women in management positions are not as good as our entry level program, this program is something that we have found works for us,” he said. “We are still fine tuning it for future generations, but we starting to see some real traction.”

Filed Under: Recruiting HR Management