It’s time for inclusive leadership: Reflections from the WILD women’s leadership forum

By Ashley Williams

May 29, 2019   |   0 comments

Like lots of driven girls, I always sought opportunities to lead growing up. Whether as president of clubs or editor of the newspaper, I knew I was qualified for the job. But like many women, I found that dusty ideas about gender still create obstacles in the workplace.

I had been in my first job after college for a few months when I presented my male bosses with a portfolio of what I had accomplished as a one-person communications team, numbers on the market rate of how much someone in my role should be making and asked for a modest raise to reflect my work and responsibilities.

My boss smiled and asked, “When are you going to be a mom, Ashley? You’re so organized. You’ll be great at it.”

The condescending comment did not come with a raise and I quickly found a better job that led me to international development and the opportunity to support gender-inclusive programming around the world.

I told this story during a workshop at last week’s Forum to Advance Women’s Leadership in the Global Development Sector put on by the Women Innovators & Leaders Network (WILD). The gasp that reverberated across the room reminded me that this former boss’ attitude was awful — and that women are not going to stand for those types of work environments anymore.

The event was full of interesting people speaking on topics they’re passionate about, including Jessica Kruvant, one of the vice presidents from my current organization Creative Associates International, and I walked away with a few new ideas about how leaders can guide us into the next stage of inclusivity at work.

Diversity and inclusivity

The theme of this year’s forum was “Greater Diversity = Greater Impact” and the main outlet for that was a plenary panel on “The Business Case for Diverse Leadership & Equity.” Professionals from Deloitte, FHI360, MetLife, McKinsey & Company and the Inter-American Development Bank noted that we are at a place where the business case for diversity has been made and is widely accepted, but we are still learning how to implement policies and practices to effectively support diversity.

Cindy Pace, MetLife’s Vice President and Global Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, addressed that being inclusive to women of color means not only hiring them, but also promoting them early in their careers so they have time to grow. She also said that more than just mentorship, women of color need your sponsorship — meaning you’re willing to publicly put your chips on the table for them. This is a critical next step in elevating women of color to positions of power so they can bring their valuable perspectives to the table.

In regard to general gender inclusion, Deloitte’s Sarah Chapman, Director of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability, discussed a new report by Deloitte about how workplace gender inequality may be tied to “how traditional masculinity keeps men tied to the strenuous expectations of many organizational cultures.”

Men mask a fear of failure by being hyper-competitive and feel pressured to be “always on, always available,” which prevents them from “sharing nonwork responsibilities with their partners in a way that would allow women to more easily advance.”

The report offered three action items organization leaders can take to help narrow the gender gap:

  • Ditch the “always on, always available” culture. It makes your employees perform more poorly and is a leading cause of gender inequality.
  • Organization leaders should look at how their behaviors are setting expectations for “what success looks like and how to achieve it.”
  • Leaders should actively break down barriers to change and narrow the gender gap by encouraging an environment where employees bring their whole selves to work. One of my favorite suggestions on how to achieve this is for leaders to take vacations and paternal leave. Chapman noted during the panel that when male leaders take real time off, it gives women a chance to grow and lead while the boss recharges.

I found these nuggets about diversity interesting and appreciated the handouts on how to be a white ally to people of color and be more inclusive, but I wish the forum had gone deeper into the many sides of inclusion and how it relates specifically to development. For example, one of my colleagues noted there were no discussions on how LGBTQI+ development workers can lead in the field where there are very real threats to their safety and wellbeing. I hope to see more topics like this next year.

“Leading at any age and any stage”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO of the New America think tank, used her keynote to champion how women can lead at “any age and any stage” of life. She made the point that the pervasive gender pay gap is more of a caretaker penalty than a gender penalty, and an ideal world would allow men and women to incorporate caregiving and allow for the ebb and flow of work intensity depending on life circumstances.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 51 percent of working mothers say being a working parent has made it more difficult to advance in their career, whereas only 16 percent of working fathers reported it being more difficult. Flexibility in work is key to creating space for women to advance and for men to benefit from the full experience of family life, whether that’s caring for children, a parent or any other nonwork responsibilities.

I believe the future of inclusive work involves shorter work weeks (which is already being successfully piloted) and company cultures that trust employees to work remotely (which Google published a positive report on this week). These are both powerful tools that help employees strike a work-life balance and may have the potential to address some of the issues we see contributing to the workplace gender gap.

Recognizing talent, building leaders

Creative’s Vice President of External Relations, Jessica Kruvant, presented a roundtable discussion on how the Creative Women’s Leadership Program is developing talent from within the organization. The program is in its second year and reading about it in Think Creative magazine during its pilot phase is one of the aspects that drew me to the company.

The program works with groups of around 15 mid- and senior-level female staff members over the course of nine months to assess their strengths, provide top-tier coaching from leadership experts, and forge a bond and support system between colleagues. Several women who have participated in the program have been promoted and all have taken on new responsibilities.

In the spirit of “leading at every age and every stage,” I hope the program expands to offer more leadership training to junior staff. Whether it’s making the curriculum available to all staff for self-study or speed-mentoring events with program participants and junior staff, there are simple ways to extend this pilot into an organization-wide asset.

And while I love that Creative is thinking about ways to encourage female leadership, the material covered could also be useful to other staff members regardless of their gender identity. Women benefit when they are aware of how their strengths and weaknesses match up with their colleagues, are coached on how to lead and have access to a meticulously curated curriculum about leadership; but women also benefit when their male colleagues have been trained on the same topics.

Perhaps my first bosses would have been more adept at navigating gender had they been trained to lead alongside women.

Ashley Williams is a writer and editor on Creative’s Communications team.

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