Women Are Ready to Lead, So Put Them In

For the past few decades there’s been a lot of talk about how companies need to build a strong bench of female leaders to diversify C-suites and senior management roles. It would be counter to a significant body of research to deny that great strides have been made or that companies are not taking the issue seriously. They are. And many have demonstrated their commitment with real investments, recruitment and retention initiatives, and action.

But it’s also true that we have a long way to go. The pipeline is full to bursting, the bench is strong, and women are accomplishing things in business today that previous generations of working women only dreamed of accomplishing.

In this article, I’ll share a bit of my personal journey and provide some simple, but effective, tips on how companies can increase diversity by implementing strategies that stoke innovative thinking and problem solving to drive positive ROI and employee engagement.

Like many women of my generation, as a young woman, I had big ambitions. As the daughter of Italian immigrants, my parents came to the U.S. to provide greater opportunities for their children — regardless of gender. Like many parents, they told us that we could do anything we wanted and be whatever we wanted to be. And like so many young women, that youthful optimism was somewhat dampened by societal realities that conflicted with my career ambitions. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it, it just meant I would have to run “an obstacle course” to get where I wanted to be. The good news is, I did make progress, and other women have similar stories about their own journeys.

Press for Progress

Looking in the rearview mirror can often be a fruitless exercise if we’re not also looking to the future. The past informs, but the future is ripe with opportunities if we’re bold enough to take advantage of them when the timing is optimal. Now is such a time.

My company, Avanade, a global IT consultancy and joint venture of Accenture and Microsoft, relied on the International Women’s Day theme “Press for Progress” to raise awareness of the need for a more gender equity in business. It’s a great talking point, but to give it teeth we need action. Each one of us, no matter our level or status, can do more to ensure  that gender equality — and pay equity — become the rule rather than the exception.

What it takes

So, what does action look like? Here are few tips on what we are doing and what you can do too to affect the type of change we want to see.

Bold leadership — Leadership at the top of the organization is critical to moving the needle when it comes to gender parity. Only 5% of S&P 500 companies have female CEOs, based on 2017 numbers. And it’s not much better at other leadership levels. Only 11% of top corporate earners are female, 21% of board members are women, and women only account for 26.5% of executive roles, according to recent studies by Catalyst, a global nonprofit that helps business address gender disparities.

It’s time for bold leadership within C-suites and among corporate boards to make a difference. Leaders must set realistic goals and hold ourselves accountable for meeting those goals. For instance, Accenture has stated publicly that it is committed to achieving gender equality by 2025. That’s bold. While it may not be appropriate for every organization or company, it’s a solid approach and strategy. We’ve also established a mandatory inclusion and diversity goal for all leaders as part of their annual performance evaluations.

Stress inclusion — Accenture has launched a global initiative called “Inclusion starts with I” – and that couldn’t be more clear. Too often when we talk about gender parity, we’re only talking to women. Men are part also an important part of the mix, because when women win, so do men. More importantly, if we accept the adage “A rising tide lifts all boats,” we know that gender diversity results in better financial performance, increased innovation and optimal employee engagement.

For example, at our company, we’ve enacted candidate slating processes that mimic the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” requiring that every candidate slate must include at least one female, and there must be at least one female interviewer in each interview loop. While not a panacea, it’s a start and roadmap for changing the culture and broadening perspectives to mitigate unconscious or conscious bias.

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So, inclusion entails everyone having a seat at the table, not just men and not just women. I learned from a recent Accenture study that women are three times more likely to engage in a professional networking group that also includes men. This is counter to past belief that women preferred women-only groups and networks. However, they are not mutually exclusive and women need to have a choice in the types of support organizations that may help them achieve their career aspirations.

Unleash creativity and innovation — There’s long been a perception that women are more risk averse than our male peers. However, there’s also been some push back on this belief as this may be a barrier to tapping into innovative thinking and problem solving from women in leadership roles. We must create workplace cultures that dare employees at all levels — both women and men — to take risks, rotate skills, and even fail without fear of career damage. Employees must adopt growth mindsets, a phrase popularized by researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, that stresses our ability to constantly learn and grow throughout our lives and careers. Although equal gender representation is no guarantee of innovation, companies with more equal representation on their boards do perform better.

As stated earlier in this article, there is no one size fits all solution. Each organization is different and industries have unique challenges and opportunities to address and/or take advantage of based on the realities of that sector. But the simple tips outlined should provide you with a starting point for planning and action until we achieve a level of gender parity and inclusion that will benefit us all and result in more profitable business outcomes.

Antoinette (Toni) Handler is corporate vice president of global talent & rewards for Avanade Global Human Resources. In this role, she leads organizational development, talent management, performance management, learning and leadership development, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement. Handler leads her organization by building capability across Avanade through talent development and driving cultural transformation.

Prior to this role, Handler was the vice president, senior human resources business partner and head of MetLife’s Global Sales Capability Center. In this role, she led HR for global employee benefits, investments, strategy, and global brand, marketing, and communications. In addition, she led MetLife’s first Human Resources horizontal to build sales capability world-wide. Handler led her organization by focusing on driving consistent organizational growth and agility, supporting MetLife’s current and future business needs, and championing innovation to meet those needs.

Handler was also the chief talent officer and chief learning officer for MetLife. She was responsible for creating, promoting and implementing a comprehensive talent management and organizational effectiveness strategy and platform that aligned directly with MetLife’s business goals. She also oversaw all enterprise-wide learning, including leadership and management development, sales development, professional skills, and service knowledge. Handler supported and advised MetLife’s CEO and executive group in defining and implementing key enterprise-wide talent, learning and change initiatives. In addition, she oversaw the re-engineering of MetLife’s enterprise-wide learning organization to maximize efficiency and provide enhanced service to support line of business goals.

Prior to joining MetLife, Handler spent nine years at Merrill Lynch in a number of human resources roles. Most recently, she led Merrill Lynch’s talent management and executive development team for global wealth management, a population size of 34,000 employees. In addition, she managed the learning teams supporting the chief administrative office organization, private client services and technology, financial advisory center, and the retirement group. Her team was responsible for leadership development, organizational development, technical/product training, training technology, and sales and client service training.

Before joining Merrill Lynch in 1994, Handler managed bank-wide management development for Chase Manhattan Bank and led the learning function for its technology and operations division. She began her career at Depository Trust Company, where she held several human resources roles during her eight years of tenure.

Handler received an M.A. degree from the State University of New York in business and policy studies and a B.S. degree from New York University in management and industrial relations.