Survey: 70% of Businesses Don’t Have a Strategy for Developing Women

Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 4 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

Does your organization focus on women when they talk about having a more diverse workforce?

Some do, of course, but the vast majority of businesses — 70 percent — say they don’t have a strategy for developing women leaders, according to a new survey by global consulting giant Mercer.

The Women’s Leadership Development Survey, conducted in September by Mercer in conjunction with Talent Management and Diversity Management magazines, surveyed human resource, talent management, and diversity leaders at a broad cross-section of more than 540 organizations throughout the U.S.

Majority don’t offer programs targeted to women

According to the survey:

  • 43 percent of the employers say that their organization does not offer any activities or programs targeted to the needs of women leaders;
  • 23 percent said their company offers some activities or programs for women;
  • 19 percent said their organization’s approach to the development of women leaders is simply “to track and monitor progress only.”
  • Just 5 percent said they currently provide a robust program for women, while 4 percent say they “plan to add programs and activities in the future.”

As bad as those numbers sound, this sounds even worse: When asked how well their organizational climate supports the development of women, 43 percent of respondents said “to a moderate extent,” while only 27 percent said “to a great extent,” 21 percent said “to a small extent” and 7 percent said it is not supported at all.

Yes, training and development programs everywhere have been slashed during all the cost cutting surrounding the Great Recession, but even given that, these numbers are pretty surprising because it shows a huge regression in most organizational efforts to develop their female workforce.

“A few decades ago, many organizations offered specific programs and activities to support women as they advanced into management and leadership roles,” said Colleen O’Neill, Ph.D., a Senior Partner in Mercer’s human capital consulting business, in a press release accompyaning the survey.

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“Today, as our survey shows, there’s less certainty about what’s appropriate and what’s effective with respect to women’s leadership development. Additionally, when companies do take steps to support women, they often focus narrowly on tactics like flexible work schedules. That may be a good starting point, but it’s certainly not a complete solution.”

Top factors preventing women from advancement

The survey also asked about the top three factors “preventing women in their organizations’ leadership talent pools from advancing to the next level.” The leading response, from among 13 choices, was lack of an executive sponsor (43 percent), followed by insufficient breadth of experience (36 percent) and work-life balance (31 percent).

Similarly, survey respondents said that the biggest challenges women face regarding their development as leaders within the organization “pertain to lack of role models, lack of opportunities for career advancement and lack of support from upper management. And while their organizations may not have expressed significant concern around women’s leadership development, many respondents indicated their own desire to improve the effectiveness of their programs through actions such as developing formal mentoring/coaching programs for women leaders, identifying high-potential leaders early in their careers, and promoting greater awareness of women’s leadership development at the board and executive level.”

All of that sounds good, but the overall numbers tell the real story — organizations are not really as focused on developing women as they sometimes like to think they are.

“Most respondents seemed to feel strongly that their organizations should pay greater attention to this issue,” Mercer’s Dr. O’Neill said. “Some, however, were adamant that women be treated no differently than men from a leadership development perspective.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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