Companies still have a ways to go to eliminate the leadership gender gap. And increasingly they’re working on it by developing women for leadership and stamping out inherently biased talent management practices. While in that process, however, companies shouldn’t overlook some ground-level, day-to-day steps they can take to empower women and transform the culture they work within, said Andee Harris, chief engagement officer for HighGround, an employee engagement software company.
“We tell women, ‘Oh, to be more successful you need to be more like men,’ ” Harris said. “Women can offer so much to companies from a bottom-line perspective, from an ability to be creative, to mentor people; we shouldn’t have to hide our femininity to fit into the workplace.”
Studies have shown that diversity and inclusion help drive innovation, enhance problem solving and promote creativity — all important to business performance. In 2015, the investment data company MSCI reported in its “Women on Boards” study that companies with strong female leadership “generated a Return on Equity of 10.1 percent per year versus. 7.4 percent for those without.”
Still, women held only 4 percent of CEO positions on the 2016 Forbes 500 list of top U.S. companies. A 2015 Pew Center survey cited top reasons for the dearth of women in the C-suite included inconsistent standards women were held to in comparison with men and companies were ill prepared to hire women in top roles. In the public and private sector , women face direct and indirect critique from men — as well as other women — on everything from the way they dress to the sound of their voices, Harris said.
She said that as organizations work to strengthen support, development and promotion for female employees and high-potential leaders, they need to empower women to embrace being themselves. Among other things, this means encouraging women to speak assertively in the workplace, and let go of self-defeating vocal nuances like vocal fry. The reality-TV inspired croakiness is less chest and more nasally, pitchy and in the throat — think “The Bachelor” or any episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” It’s particularly common among younger generations of women, and in addition to being a bit hard on the ears, it has a similar effect as up-speak where a person inflects the end of declarative statements. Both habits, which women are more likely to intentionally pick up, rescind any authority they may attempt to establish.
“It’s almost a tick,” Harris said. “It…prevents us from using our full voice and…degrades the meaning of what we’re saying.”
While some women may use a backwards-focused voice to come off as less threatening to their male peers, vocal fry — in addition to being harmful to vocal chords — makes the speaker appear less polished, less competent and less hireable, a 2014 study on vocal fry found.
Given all of the systemic and cultural issues working against female advancement in the workplace, the self-policing that some women may employ isn’t helping, Harris said. “If we try hard to minimize our impact, then we often get passed up for things.”
Organizations can implement strategies within formal leadership development engagements and outside of them that encourage women to be themselves and assert their uniqueness, and foster a performance environment where women are accepted for their uniqueness, and recognized and promoted on merit, not superficial traits like the sound of their voice.
Mentors and female leaders can role model how to own one’s identity by demonstrating their own authenticity and by showing acceptance of other womens’ ways of doing things in the workplace. Harris said she tries to be intentional about this at work, and she extends this role modeling to her work-life integration. “If I’m leaving early to attend something at my kids’ school, I don’t try to hide it,” she said. “I say so, so that other women can see that.”
Further, to help create workplaces where women shine, are accepted and empowered, companies must shift away from old-school performance management practices that rely on subjective observations and are liable for bias. Managers should make sure employees have measurable goals in place. Then they can evaluate performance objectively.
At HighGround, workers have a reward and recognition system that is both peer-to-peer and manager driven. People can track the recognition they receive over time, so they can bring it up during performance conversations, as well as their progress toward achieving set goals.
“Having more measurable things that aren’t subjective are really important in the workplace,” Harris said. It puts attention on what really matters at work—not clothes, not the voice, but the ability to collaborate, innovate, add value and drive performance.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.