Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work by Coleen Ammerman

Colleen Ammerman identifies and expounds on the barriers to female advancement in the workplace, and proposes corresponding diversity and gender equity oriented solutions. Banner image: Shutterstock/Djomas

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Copyright 2021 Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg. Used with permission of the publisher, Harvard Business Press Review. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.

This excerpt is part of a series in which experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address for the OECD the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.


Managers are the not-so-secret weapon in the battle against gender inequality at work. An analysis of numerous studies finds that well-intentioned training and policies consistently fall short when it comes to producing and maintaining greater diversity, but engaged managers who feel responsible for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion create results.[1] Without managers committed to taking everyday actions to break down common barriers, policies do little to grow the pipeline of female leaders. Even the most forward-thinking programs initiated from the top will fail if individual managers implement them ineffectively.

Looking back on my career, I left noninclusive leaders for new companies. It probably helped me in the long run because it forced me to change [jobs], but on the other hand, I don’t think it helped the companies they worked for, because those companies lost talent, and the current talent is also underutilized and not offering their best.”

The impact of inclusive management—and its opposite—on women’s careers became clear when we surveyed a group of about 130 women who had taken executive education courses designed for female leaders. Nearly three-quarters of the women we surveyed (all of whom had attained senior leadership) said that, at some point, having an inclusive manager had positively impacted their careers. They also told us about leaving jobs and companies they loved but where they were treated dismissively or denied opportunities to grow. Dozens said they’d left jobs, companies, and even industries because their managers weren’t up to par on inclusion. They went on to grow and lead but often at a cost to themselves and to the organizations they left. As one woman explained, “Looking back on my career, I left noninclusive leaders for new companies. It probably helped me in the long run because it forced me to change [jobs], but on the other hand, I don’t think it helped the companies they worked for, because those companies lost talent, and the current talent is also underutilized and not offering their best.”

Check out the report Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis, which details how in spite of greater uncertainty, economically and socially, women are the driving force behind the pandemic response

Our work led us to five key attributes of inclusive management, each with underlying behaviors and practices that enable managers to develop these capabilities. Inclusive management isn’t feel-good fluff. It requires self-reflection, awareness of the drivers of workplace disadvantage, and a commitment to changing the conditions, including your own habits and assumptions, that perpetuate it. Motivating and enabling your team to deliver its best work is central to any managerial role. By focusing on fairness, you can remove obstacles to performance and unleash employees to thrive in their roles. Call it your inclusive advantage.

Inclusive Managers Develop an Objective Lens for Recruiting and Rewarding Employees

It’s well known that implicit biases (that is, the stereotypes we unconsciously associate with different groups) can skew our perception and decisions. Knowing that unconscious bias exists doesn’t automatically eliminate it, but you have the opportunity to dig into your processes and identify ways to minimize its impact. This can be as simple as investigating patterns that are gender-skewed. If you observe that male candidates have won out over women in three out of four recent searches, you might pull the résumés of each finalist and take a look at whatever evaluation materials are available, be they scoring sheets or simply your notes from debrief meetings. Look for differences in how men and women were described, whether they were asked different questions, and how their accomplishments and skills were weighted. These conversations, whether with colleagues or yourself, should be inquisitive, not accusatory, and encourage dialogue about how candidates are being perceived and vetted.

Inclusive Managers Provide Developmental Opportunities and Feedback on an Equitable Basis

Managers’ role in enabling and encouraging employees to take up growth opportunities means that every day they are shaping the leadership pipeline in their companies and industries. In a longitudinal study for which we serve on the research team, about half of women who lacked supportive managers found that absence to be “very” or “extremely” detrimental to their careers. Conversely, among those who’d had supportive managers, the vast majority described the relationships as very or extremely beneficial to their careers. Yet managers can only offer this kind of support if they strive to view employees through a lens that isn’t distorted by assumptions about women’s capability or preferences. For instance, instead of assuming that a female employee is closing fewer deals because she’s a weak negotiator, look into whether she has access to the same information and resources her male peers do, or whether her clients are systematically different in some way. Instead of assuming that a female employee with young children won’t be interested an expatriate assignment, share the opportunity and allow her to make that judgment.

Find out more about the OECD's work in support of gender equality and read the report Is the Last Mile the Longest? Economic Gains from Gender Equality in Nordic Countries

Inclusive Managers Foster a Culture Where Everyone Matters

Interpersonal exclusion—both subtle and blatant—was the most consistent theme that emerged in our survey of executive women. About 40 percent of all examples of non-inclusive management recounted some form of being marginalized or left out of both work-related and social interactions. Interpersonal patterns on your team can undermine the work you’ve done to establish fairness in your formal management processes. When you form personal bonds only with the employees who share your gender, those who are different from you have less access to the information, advice, and insights that you hold. One woman in our survey described how a manager prioritized spending time with same-gender colleagues: “[I had] a manager whose busy schedule often had him squeezing in one-on-one time with male colleagues after hours (over drinks, dinners, etc.), but female colleagues often had their meetings either cancelled or cut short to fit into the compressed workday.” Managing inclusively means getting to know the people you don’t connect with as seamlessly. Not only does such a mindful approach help ensure you aren’t inadvertently favoring some employees on the basis of gender (or race, or sexual orientation, or any other identity), but it also sets inclusion as the cultural norm for your team or department.

Inclusive Managers Effectively Leverage Diverse Perspectives

In our survey of women executives, one consistent characteristic of non-inclusive managers was an unwillingness or inability to listen to and take advantage of others’ views and insights. Superficial recognition that doesn’t allow women to fully contribute won’t placate employees who feel their voices are unheard. Indeed, lip service can be all the more frustrating, as expressed by one woman working in the health care industry: “I recently reported to someone I always thought was inclusive, but in hindsight he was not. He put women in top roles, but they did not get an equal voice. Many times, I was told what decisions were rather than being asked to make the decision or provide input.” Not only does this sort of inclusion in name only demoralize employees, but it also deprives teams of the benefits of diversity. By seeking out and valuing perspectives grounded in employee’s different experiences, you can deepen engagement and are also likely to gain insights that contribute to better work culture and performance.

Inclusive Managers Champion Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as Values and Aspirations

Despite much discussion, women today still aren’t sure that their organizations truly prioritize equitable treatment. In a 2019 study, less than half of women—and just 35 percent of Black women—believed that promotion decisions at their companies were fair and objective. In a 2018 study we conducted with a global sample of executive women, only 19 percent felt that their field or industry was doing enough to engage and retain women. By being explicit about your commitment to inclusive management, you indicate to your employees that these values are a priority. One way to make that commitment clear is by treating activities and projects related to diversity as legitimate and important. One woman in our inclusive management study pointed to a manager who supported participation in employee resource groups and funded dues in women’s professional organizations. You can also elevate inclusion to a business priority by setting concrete goals for yourself and your team. If you manage other managers, setting an expectation for your employees to implement inclusive practices widens your impact. Getting specific about what employees need to do to work and lead inclusively will enable you to incorporate those goals into performance objectives and hold your team accountable.

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Cultivating these five attributes will help you make decisions, communicate, and collaborate in ways that enable your team to do more than just function. With conditions in place that make it possible for people to contribute to their fullest potential, stay engaged, and feel invested in shared goals, your team can thrive.

[1] Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016, 52–60.

Find out more about Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, by Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg (April 13, 2021, © Harvard Business Press Review).

Tackling COVID-19 Gender Equality   Entrepreneurship

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Colleen Ammerman

Coauthor, Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work; Director, Gender Initiative, Harvard Business School

Colleen works with the faculty leadership of the Gender Initiative to support a research community and a platform for disseminating practice-relevant insights for advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in organizations. She oversees the Initiative’s staff, operations, and activities, including student and alumni engagement, programs for companies, and research conferences. She is a member of the Life & Leadership After HBS research team, an ongoing longitudinal study of Harvard Business School alumni which examines the influence of gender and race on their life and career outcomes. She is coauthor, with Boris Groysberg, of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work (Harvard Business Review Press).