Retaining & Developing Women Leaders: 5 Steps for Success

5 Proven Ways to Attract & Retain Women Leaders

If retaining and developing women leaders are priorities in your company, what actions are you taking to achieve sustainable results?

Your organization, like many others around the globe, may be struggling to overcome what’s now been coined the “SHEcession.” During the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for women was recorded about 2% higher than that of men — with the employment rate of women of color taking the biggest hit, statistics show.

It’s now more critical than ever to take an intentional and systematic approach to retaining and developing women leaders. Your HR function may have created policies or processes aimed at supporting the women in your organization. Maybe diversity training or gender-specific hiring and promoting goals are in the mix. Perhaps some of the policies aimed at increasing flexibility that were established in the height of the pandemic are here to stay, in recognition that women are commonly burdened with more caregiving responsibilities than men.

But HR policies and initiatives are just one piece of what’s needed to prepare and encourage women employees to take on leadership roles. More is needed, and it starts with your culture.

Are you ready to take the challenge to start retaining and developing women leaders more effectively at your organization?

How to Prioritize Retaining & Developing Women Leaders

5 Keys to Success

The culture of an organization or a department — and even 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 provide an equitable work experience that helps to support, retain, and develop women leaders, organizations should take a broad, “whole systems” view. 

Here are 5 proven things to consider when it comes to promoting and developing women leaders.

1. Address women’s leadership challenges and needed competencies. 

Ensure your female leaders have the experiences and the resources to learn what they need most. Interventions for developing women leaders on an individual level could include targeted training, guidance for on-the-job learning, coaching opportunities, and mentoring at work.

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 in your organization. In general, as noted in our white paper, our research has found that:

  • The top 4 leadership challenges for women are typically 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.
Developing the most important leadership competencies for all leaders is a good place to start.

2. Leverage the power of choosing.

Individual women also need to be intentional about their careers and their development as leaders.

The power to choose is sometimes overlooked by women, due in part to cultural conditioning. So encourage female leaders in your organization to recognize their own agency and:

  • Exert greater influence over the choices they make.
  • Take the lead in shaping conversations about their career.
  • Take ownership over their career choices.
  • Create a personal leadership development strategy.
  • Be as strategic about family responsibilities as they are about workplace roles.

Women leaders should receive messaging from the organization that embraces a more individualized — and less stereotypical — perspective on professional and personal roles that may have historically been categorized as “men’s roles” and “women’s roles.” It’s all part of living with intention, both at work and at home.

3. Rethink systems and challenge assumptions.

Helping individual women become better leaders is not enough. While there are no easy fixes for rebalancing the global gender gap, one thing is clear: the pandemic and consequent “SHEcession” have highlighted systemic imbalances that have a great impact on women, organizations, and larger society. It’s clear now that we do not need to change women — we need to change systems.

Look for ways that unconscious bias in the organization affects opportunities and motivation for women, and make increasing gender equity in the workplace a priority for your organization.

When your leaders (at every level) are able to recognize conscious and unconscious biases and imbalances, they can proactively work to address them. The key is to create an environment where women leaders feel the psychological safety to speak out and have the backing of an organization committed to driving widespread culture change.

Take concrete steps to evolve your organizational culture to orient toward building greater equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) — starting with a focus on equity — and connect developing women leaders to your broader EDI approach.

Meeting scheduling, social norms, networking opportunities, mentoring programs, and talent management policies and processes are some potential areas for focused improvement. Also, ensure that managers are aware that they should ask, rather than assume that they know, what women in the workplace want from work (this is also a good idea with all employees).

Above all, organizations should create the culture and systems that make it easier to have candid conversations.

4. Provide flexible women’s leadership development experiences. 

Talented women want organizations to invest in their development, but be sure to include them in the program selection process. Offer flexible formats, including virtual options, and provide “air cover” and the permission for women leaders to put their day-to-day work responsibilities on hold to make space for their development. 

Another consideration is whether an all-women or all-gender experience is more beneficial for your organization’s unique situation. Both approaches can have a positive effect on retaining and developing women leaders. When making the decision, evaluate these factors:

  • Are women a demographic minority in the leadership ranks of your organization? If so, they may benefit from an all-women leadership development experience. The opportunity to connect and network with other women across their ranks can sometimes be more meaningful when it’s less available in their day-to-day work lives.
  • Do you have executive-level support? All-women programs are most effective when they have the explicit support and involvement of executive sponsors. This sends a message to women leaders that their needs are seen and that the organization is investing in the value they are capable of creating.
  • Is the development hosted within your organization? If so, sponsoring and mentoring women on an ongoing basis should also be considered. Doing so can provide guidance and support from senior leaders to help women integrate what they’ve learned into day-to-day operations.

Mixed-gender leadership development settings are also highly beneficial. After all, women lead in organizations that are racially, culturally, socioeconomically, and gender diverse. All-gender development can help participants network, influence, and lead across demographics more effectively. And for women leaders struggling with burnout, it can be validating to hear that many of their challenges are shared across genders, functions, and even industries.

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 have struggled with networking, especially during the pandemic though — often due to a combination of factors including lack of time, cultural programming, and the belief that networking is insincere, manipulative, or inauthentic. But the networks that come easily are not necessarily the most beneficial.

Organizations can support women in developing the relationships they need to succeed. Women need a network of champions, including mentors, sponsors, and coaches. This can help women leaders gain a clear understanding of the network they have, compared to the network they need. New relationships and new connections can be built, with both the short- and long-term in mind.

Organizations serious about retaining and developing women leaders will want to ensure they are helping all their talent build the right relationships, political skills, and networks to succeed.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your organization become better at developing women leaders and learn intentional actions to support them. Take our 5-Day Retaining Women Leaders Challenge and invite other leaders and colleagues to join you!

Download the Retaining Women Leaders Challenge Now

Download our 5-day challenge to start exploring specific ways you can support retaining, promoting, and developing women leaders at your organization.

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March 8, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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