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Belonging does not mean ignoring: Addressing the ‘inclusion paradox’

Delve into the complexities of fostering belonging for all in the workplace, particularly in women’s leadership development.

The work to deliver belonging to everyone in the workplace can create interesting challenges. For example, the so-called “inclusion paradox” that is often faced in women’s leadership development.

The aim of these efforts is to create and nurture an environment where women feel included – where they feel that their voice has genuine value and worth. To achieve this, it’s important to focus on women and the challenges and characteristics that are unique to women. But critics see this process as exclusionary. They argue that giving special focus, advantage and exposure to women is far from equitable or inclusive.

It’s a sentiment that leads some to express feelings of ‘gender fatigue.’ Of course, the issue here isn’t really about gender priority, or even promoting equality. It’s about identifying misconceptions and clarifying the key benefits of women’s leadership development programming – for both individuals and the organisation as a whole.

So, why should organisations continue to prioritise investing in women’s leadership development? Quite simply, organisations with women at the most senior leadership levels perform better, with greater innovation and a stronger return on shareholder investment.

Here are six key things to consider when it comes to supporting women leaders:

Long-term inclusion requires strategic focus

Without active and engaged support to overcome barriers, women will continue to be blocked out. There’s still too much ground to cover without that support. According to PWC’s Women in Work Index 2023, despite all the progress that women have made already, if historical trends continue at their current rate an 18-year-old woman starting work today will NEVER see pay equality in her working lifetime.

To achieve genuine inclusion, intention and differentiated intervention are still needed – and will be for quite some time.

Is psychological safety easier in a single-gender group?

In its essence, psychological safety in a workplace context means not having to walk around on eggshells, feeling free and confident to contribute – to offer up innovative ideas without worrying about being shot down or side-lined.

Tailored coaching addresses challenges specific to women

It’s not hard to imagine that men and women may have fundamentally different experiences in the working world. Putting everyone in the same boat for coaching or training means that exercises are not as tailored. And that means outcomes are not as effective. 

Supporting women doesn’t mean abandoning men

As Dan Simpson, human resources director at Siemens Energy (a long-standing Talking Talent client) once put it: “Quality men have nothing to fear from equality”. Challenging zero-sum thinking ensures the existence of workplaces where men and women, no matter their backgrounds, can have the same opportunities for advancement – places where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

The numbers speak for themselves

The pressure to narrow gender pay gaps is intense. But it won’t change with direct action, which means differentiated intervention for the least-represented groups.

Check your own data: does your representation of women drop off a cliff after mid-tier leadership levels? Make sure your commitment to advance women in the workplace is conveyed in both word and deed. That means also being transparent about the current discrepancies in numbers of women and men at different levels of the business.

Women-centric does not mean ‘women only’

Women’s leadership development programs are evolving, but not all are created equal. To have sustained and significant impact, programs supporting your most talented women need to work with the whole organisation. That means systemic change: including stakeholders and senior leaders of all genders. It’s time to ditch the idea of “women-only” programs and embrace “women-centric” ones.

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