Ask the Career Doctor: How to build a corporate ladder high-potential women can climb

HR managers can achieve a diverse, healthy and prosperous workplace by calibrating, mentoring and supporting women in their desire for advancement.

Q:  In your last column, you offered suggestions on how HR managers can encourage and support women to stay visible in the workplace even as they work remotely. As we help women on the path to success, what are some ways HR leaders can be sensitive to unconscious bias and build an organization that brings women up the career ladder, especially when many women may choose to remain in a remote or hybrid environment?

A: As the hybrid workforce assumes a more permanent role in many companies, women will likely continue to take advantage of these opportunities to balance their work and life commitments. The question then becomes, how can we, as HR leaders, help our organizations and the women we want to cultivate as leaders achieve equal opportunities for advancement?

To address this important issue, it is incumbent upon us to urge each woman to first identify her areas of strengths along with her specific goals for career advancement. This can be particularly challenging in a remote scenario, as it is often more difficult for women to find their voice in this setting — and a remote or hybrid scenario can be especially difficult for women of color, who may already be marginalized in their organizations.

As a result, many women take a more passive approach to saying what their career aspirations are, which puts the onus on us as HR leaders to develop the tools and resources they need to achieve their goals.

The first step for HR managers is to start with better understanding, through measurement, what is happening in their organizations. That way we can get a true picture and can address any unconscious bias issues that may be present. Here are several examples that provide guidelines to accomplish this:

  • Enabling diverse talent: We can all agree that women bring many advantages to the workplace — including a different point of view than their male colleagues. As an organization, we must make a commitment to recruiting diverse talent and to filling the pipeline with women who have leadership potential. Therefore, we need to continually analyze our efforts in this area. Are we making an effort to recruit women and women of color?  Are there additional initiatives needed to accomplish this?
  • Establish effective metrics: You cannot fix what you don’t know is broken. HR managers should continually measure and evaluate several factors, such as who is getting promoted. Are women being asked to join meetings and strategic projects, etc.? In a new McKinsey report , women continue to face a broken ladder at the first step up to manager. In fact, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. This results in men outnumbering women by significant margins at the managerial level — which is why we see much fewer women at the senior-manager, director and vice-president levels. In short, we need to take a hard look to see if women and women of color are not only “invited to the party”’ but are also “being asked to dance” and contribute as they hopefully move up the corporate ladder.
  • Develop effective mentor networks: HR managers can provide women with guidance in how to build a personal mentor network, which can be a key component to their success. Mentors can provide the insight, guidance and nonjudgmental conversations that can inform, excite and inspire. As the pandemic has caused a seismic shift to remote/hybrid work, the link to develop strong and effective mentor programs is often difficult to accomplish or simply put on the back burner. In fact, having a strong mentor network for women is key to helping them and their organizations have the types of conversations that can be challenging and perhaps cause friction, but are necessary for learning and growing. Developing a network of connections (mentors and advisers) to fuel their growing aspirations is key to overcoming any innate organizational bias because it opens new and important communication lines and infuses confidence in women who take part in it.

While most of us believe we live in a more equitable world, stereotyping and bias are still part of many workplaces today and contribute to the corporate gender gap. We know in nature, diversity leads to a healthy environment, and this is also true in the corporate world. Creating a successful enterprise can only be accomplished with a diverse and unbiased workplace, and we must take steps as HR managers to first measure and then act on the discrepancies that we find.

Companies must be sensitized to different kinds of unconscious bias that affect women in the workplace and support them by staying actively involved in the strategies that will keep them inspired, growing and able to climb the corporate ladder without stepping on a broken rung.