If developing, retaining, and promoting female talent is a priority in your company, what are you doing to get results?

The HR function may have set up formal policies or processes aimed at attracting and supporting women. Maybe diversity training or gender-specific hiring and promoting goals are in the mix.

Flexible working conditions and norms that recognize family and personal roles are great for all employees, but especially helpful for single parents and for women who are typically responsible for more caregiving activities than men.

But formal policies are just one piece of what’s needed to prepare and encourage female employees to take on leadership roles.

The culture of an organization or a department — or the views of a single manager — can have a direct impact on whether women stay with an organization or leave for something better.

The informal patterns of influence and unspoken performance expectations play a role. And, of course, a woman’s individual experiences and perspectives are powerful factors, too.

To attract, develop, retain, and promote talented women, organizations should take a broad view. Here are 5 proven things to consider:

Infographic: How to Attract, Develop, and Retain Women

1. Address women’s leadership challenges and needed competencies. Ensure female leaders have the experiences and the resources to learn what they need most.

This could include giving guidance for on-the-job learning (what we call “experience-driven development”), as well as coaching, mentoring, and workshops or programs.

But it’s important that the organization — and individuals — are clear on the perspectives, skills, and capabilities that are needed to be effective in various leadership roles.

According to a recent CCL survey of 337 HR leaders and line managers:

  • The top 4 leadership challenges for women are establishing credibility, managing up and across the organization, negotiating adeptly, and influencing others.
  • The 2 most important competencies to start developing are managing organizational complexity and strategic thinking and acting.

2. Leverage the power of choosing. Women need to be intentional about their careers and development as leaders.

The power to choose is often overlooked by women. Encourage female leaders in the organization to:

  • Exert greater influence over the choices they make.
  • Take the lead in shaping conversations about their career.
  • Take greater ownership over their career choices.
  • Create a personal leadership development strategy.

3. Rethink systems and challenge assumptions. Look for ways that unconscious bias in the organization affects opportunities and motivation for women.

Scheduling, opportunities for networking and mentoring, social norms, and talent management processes are some potential areas for rethinking and improvement.

Managers should ask, rather than assume they know what women want (this is also a good idea with all employees), and organizations should create the culture and systems that make it easier to have those conversations.

4. Consider a women-only leadership development experience. A female-only program or initiative doesn’t reflect the everyday world of work — and that’s a good thing.

Novel contexts can shed light on experiences and provide new ways to think about future possibilities. Plus, a women-only context allows shared experiences to inform the content and support the conversation.

5. Create the right networks. The right relationships and ties are an asset in getting access to information, earning promotions, and gaining opportunities.

Effective leaders rely on key networks and trusted partners to influence others and to get results.

Many women resist the process of networking, believing it’s insincere, manipulative, or political — or simply not a natural part of who they are. But the networks that come easily are not necessarily beneficial for women, their careers, or their organization.

Managers, coaches, and mentors should help women gain a clear understanding of the network they have and compare it to the network they need. New relationships and new connections can be built with both the short term and the long term in mind.


Want More on Women & Leadership?

The Women’s Leadership Experience is a multi-phase learning and networking opportunity for experienced managers. It begins and ends with short, face-to-face sessions with peers and specialized facilitators and coaches.

In between, women work on challenges and goals, engage with coaches, and refine their personal leadership strategy.

We also work closely with HR and talent management leaders to tailor leadership experiences and processes to address the unique realities that female leaders face in their organization or industry. And if you’re part of a tech organization, consider our Advancing Technical Women program.

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

5 thoughts on “5 Proven Ways to Attract & Retain Women Leaders

  1. From my experience as a leadership professional at 3 Fortune 250 companies, I find these points resonate strongly. Women who are in leadership or aspire to be may have strategic thoughts and need to be able to express them credibly…starting with context. On a personal level, I find I can see the strategy and the practical and often tend to speak from the practical, execution side. If women start from the strategic, listen for and speak to the practical, then I think that builds more sustained credibility, particularly with people who do not know your track record.

    I love the phrase “the power of choosing.” This speaks well to career journey success.

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    Mary Kingsley
    Certified Leadership Coach | Facilitator | Innovative Program Designer

    1. Lauren McSwain-Starrett says:

      Thank YOU, Mary, for this and your other thoughtful comments. Glad you found the articles valuable.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful. However what I find lacking is that we are still looking at a paradigm of male leadership and what skills women need to make it in a male dominated world. Yet we are that half of the world who brings forth the other half. We need organisations that acknowledge and embrace the feminine energy, champion women’s unique skills and qualities and are not backwards in going forwards in addressing sexual harassment and gender inequalities in the business world and workplace. Leadership can be appointed, anointed or appropriated. Women must not be afraid to embrace or demonstrate their power in all their unique ways – we are not in the business to be liked by men or women but to know our true worth and be respected as equals.

  3. I found this article helpful as a Leadership Performance Coach/Human Capital Coach in my organization. One of my goals is to form a Women’s Leadership Group to address these challenges. As a coach my organization and in my coaching practice, I find myself having the conversation about “the power of choosing” your career and taking control of your professional/personal development. I’ve addressed these issues in my book, HER Exit Strategy: The Working Women’s Freedom Plan to Live Your Big Vision.

    Thank you for shedding light on the challenges of women leaders in the corporate arena.

  4. Very well researched article. Women have natural leadership skills that if harnessed well can add immense value and productivity for organisations and countries. Having to deal with negotiations daily keeping families afloat in the home, at dining tables etc, lobbying for peace and sharing meals, prioritizing responsibilities and resources are immesne leadership skills that many our men do not have YET society is skewed and dominated more by the patriarchal laws – formal and informal

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