Many organizations today recognize that advancing women in the workforce offers one of the biggest opportunities to impact business growth and innovation. But improving gender imbalance in organizations has proven to be a challenge. Although organizations have been taking steps toward greater gender parity, we are still decades away from realizing the full potential of the female workforce.

As our When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive research has made clear, change doesn’t happen unless business leaders understand the business imperative and use data and analytics to get at the root cause of gender imbalance in their own organization.

But helping women thrive also means organizations must have a deep understanding of and sensitivity to the psychology of all the individuals involved – and they need committed role models with the passion and courage to lead change. Changing the behavior of all individuals who make up the organizations – or changing the organizational culture is more difficult than many change management projects because:

  • Men matter, but may not be engaged as equal partners. Our research found that female representation is higher in organizations with men who actively support diversity and inclusion (D&I), yet only 38% said men were engaged in these efforts.
  • Much behavior is unconscious, so is not responsive to training or communication campaigns. Although conscious bias does play some role in persistent gender imbalances, unconscious beliefs and behaviors are far more prevalent — and far more difficult to address. In fact, traditional diversity training may actually impede D&I efforts by highlighting our differences while failing to offer strategies for overcoming unconscious biases.
  • Underlying differences in how women and men view things like uncertainty and respond to processes are misunderstood and perpetuate gender imbalances. Research suggests that men and women may view the hiring process differently; for example, men may see it as being more susceptible to relationships and advocacy or self-promotion, and women may see it as being more rigidly based on qualifications. These differences matter when processes are designed for and reward certain traits and perceptions while undervaluing others — and they can lead to persistent gender imbalances that are not responsive to traditional D&I efforts.
  • Feelings can get in the way. It’s important to recognize the negative emotions that accompany any change — emotions that affect everyone involved. For example, men may see the effort to reach gender parity as a zero-sum game in which women win and men lose. They may fear a loss of status and privilege, but simultaneously feel discouraged from taking advantage of programs designed to promote work-life balance and level the playing field, such as flex time and family leave policies. At the same time, some women may be reluctant to take on stretch assignments or climb aggressively up the corporate ladder, fearing potential tradeoffs with other priorities, especially in the absence of adequate conversation with male counterparts on how to balance.

The answer is not to change people, but to change processes and practices to meet people where they are. This means:

  • Setting measurable goals based on the business imperative and results of analysis about where women are getting hung up in their career progression. For example, the organization may decide it needs more women in profit and loss roles or wants to retain more women after they have children.
  • Identifying the behaviors that will lead to these outcomes and modeling them. This may mean increasing the number of women who apply for certain roles, for example, or increasing the percentage of men who take advantage of parental leave.
  • Understanding what underlies existing behavior and choosing the best means of driving the new behaviors. For example, if internal research reveals that men will apply for a new role with only 40% certainty that they will do well in it whereas women will not apply unless they are 80% certain, the organization can implement practices designed to get women to that 80% threshold more quickly. Such practices could include offering additional training or enhancing potential applicants’ understanding of the role to make it easier to compare one’s skillset with that required.
  • Leaders and role models modeling the desired behaviors across all levels of the organization.

It has been our great pleasure over the past four years to work with trailblazing organizations that are capitalizing on the drivers proven to accelerate progress on gender diversity. The question now is whether more organizations will act to make change for good. Given the rewards – from higher productivity and engagement to enhanced innovation and growth – we are more hopeful than ever that the answer is “yes.”