Why Women's Initiatives Continue to Fail Women


I got a flyer in my inbox telling me that we had a successful woman leader visiting one of our offices in town sometime next week, and women employees were welcome to come over to hear her speak. The flyer carried a brief bio of the lady in question and a photo to go with it. It didn't say anything about a cup of tea and networking post the talk, more like a learn-what-you-can kind of a session. Hmm I did have a lot of work to do, and this was at another location than where I was based. Maybe, another time, and I closed the email never to think about it again up until now.

Here's another recall of a program for women. Yet another flyer, this time it was a training program on assertiveness skills for women. The idea was to learn to speak up and not shy away from contradicting a roomful of men who represented 95% of our leadership roles. I was quite assertive already, one of the many hard lessons I had learned on my way. What I would have loved to learn was how to negotiate better for myself. I wasn't so good with that even though I had come up the ranks. Women around me freely discussed that we needed to do better for ourselves when it came to compensation and rewards. Feeling disappointed I decided to give the assertiveness training a miss, as well.

Sound familiar? How often have you been at the receiving end of a 'women's initiative' in your organisation that didn't speak to you? In fact, you couldn't find anyone sitting around you who understood or loved it.

Related Article: 7 Ways Leaders Exclude People on Their Team

Millions of dollars of budgets each year get allocated to diversity and inclusion programs across organisations. So, it's not necessarily a money issue. Why then is it so hard to capture your key audience? As life goes, most women don't much care about flyers dropping in or a standee that graces the lobby on a Monday morning announcing how so-and-so will be coming over to inspire women employees.

It's a bit frustrating because we do want to learn skills to get further in our career in a male dominated workplace, and all you get are unfocused conversations on generic stuff that you could have read in a book or watched a video about.

In all these years, I've attended ONE session that spoke to me. We had one of our C-suite women come down from overseas and have a chat with a few of us who were specifically invited because of the roles we were in. This made the session very focused on challenges you face as you navigate a certain stage of your career. We were few of us in the room and the guest leader sat at the same table talking directly to us with no moderator to steer the conversation in a particular direction of their choosing. We all got to ask our questions, and I came out energised and inspired, plus learned a few valuable career tips.This successful initiative aimed at women was an exception.

Here are 4 reasons that might be derailing your efforts to involve and retain women and offer programs that will help them advance their careers and do well in senior roles.

#1 Too much knowledge is hurting us

Most of us who work within the diversity and inclusion space have considerable experience and passion that bring us to such roles. Yes, we've read more articles on gender diversity and what works and doesn't than we can count, but that doesn't mean we understand our female workforce and their needs. Knowingness can be limiting as much as it can be liberating. The pace at which our workforce is morphing and evolving is mind boggling. That HBR article is still stuck in our head, but might not fit our situation or our women. What we already know also stops us from learning what we don't know, but need to. The real work is all about what we glean from listening hard to our women workforce who are happy to tell us what they need and will value. In the past 18 years, I have never ever been asked by anyone in my organisation's diversity team what I really wanted to learn and where I needed help. No kidding.

#2 You are speaking at me

Most notifications I got about women's initiatives seemed so disconnected with what would have appealed to me. As I would delete another email that didn't resonate, I didn't stop to think why this wasn't working for me. I was a woman, I was my diversity team's target audience and I wasn't feeling involved. Programs were being done for me and I must now consume them to feel more included. There is a fundamental gap between the intention to include and the means to do so. Now that I think back, most emails were talking at me. They were selling me off-the-shelf versions of what would help advance my career. In that narrow definition of a women's program I missed the message. As did many of my women colleagues who didn't think much of what was coming at them. What I was looking for was to be spoken to, asked what I needed at that point and not spoken at instead.

#3 Lack of transparency and meaning

While it was evident looking around the cafeteria that we were much fewer women than men, there was no clear indication of how badly we were doing on gender diversity. That was a statistic not publicised. The trend of publishing numbers and owning up to them is still new, and not wide-spread at that. We were given the good news once in a while, for example, the number of people with disabilities that were hired for the year, not how many we had to begin with. While this selective messaging is subtle, it is self-serving to those who drive such initiatives. I heard that the person who was hiring more people with disabilities into our organisation got a big thumbs up from executive leaders. As I heard this news, I looked around my office and at how terribly disabled unfriendly we were even then.

#4 Systemic & cultural issues fail good intentions

Inclusion is a fairly new concept and so is Inclusive Leadership. Top management institutes might have been talking about it for some years now, but the practical reality of inclusion is far from being a norm in organisations. The fact that we talk so much about it is indicative that inclusion is not a given and doesn't take care of itself. As organisations push for more women in leadership roles, there is still little focus on subtle and not so subtle ways women are rejected by their male peers or considered token hires. Unaddressed systemic and cultural issues subvert good intentions to promote more women and balance organisations at the top. Just like hiring more people with disabilities doesn't work without an office that supports access and inclusion, advancing more women doesn't sustain without a cultural shift in how we see women's competence vs that of men.

Involving women is not a function of budgets and resources, it's a function of our intention to listen and involve the target audience we hope to serve. Women are a consumer base that is very happy to share and participate in what will enable their cause. There just needs to be more of an effort to speak to them and then focus on listening.

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