3 Insights on Inclusion

Authored by

NLI Staff
Organizations should think about their habits and reward systems to help women leaders thrive.
Key Points:
  • In celebration of Women’s History Month, a recent Your Brain At Work Live explored the state of women in leadership.
  • A major theme was inclusion — the progress that’s been made and the barriers that remain.
  • In many cases, organizations need to better systematize the way women are evaluated, rewarded, and promoted.

While the corporate world has made progress in bringing more women into leadership and executive roles over the past several decades — for instance, the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs reached an all-time high in 2023 — there’s still a long way to go toward full equality. Sometimes, the reasons have to do with conscious bias — an active, intentional effort to keep men in positions of power. But in many more cases, unconscious bias is at the root of who gets hired, promoted, developed, and supported. For example, since most leaders are male, they may be more likely to promote men than women (a similarity bias), even if they consciously support women as leaders. These were some of the issues explored in a recent Your Brain At Work Live webinar timed with Women’s History Month. Led by NLI’s Christy Pruitt-Haynes, the discussion focused on how organizations can systematize their leadership development of women, the role of intersectionality, and how teams should handle feedback and rewards to ensure women have a fair shot at rising through the ranks.

Priorities, Habits, and Systems™ ensure equitable treatment

NLI has a saying: If you’re not intentionally including, you’re probably unintentionally excluding. In practice, this often translates to leaders coming up with several key priorities for leadership development but failing to build the habits that bring those priorities to life, as well as the systems that sustain those behaviors. NLI refers to this model of culture change as Priorities, Habits, and Systems™ (PHS). It’s a helpful tool for tilting a culture in any direction, including developing and sustaining more female leaders. For instance, as NLI Impact Designer Dr. Brigid Lynn noted in the webinar, one cause of women’s higher rate of burnout than men is an ever-widening scope of their responsibilities. A company may say its priority for a role is one thing, but its habits and systems unintentionally add more to the female leader’s plate — a harmful form of “job creep” that can lead to false perceptions of low performance. Job creep may disproportionately affect women because of managers’ biases that women traditionally handle administrative tasks or that women are “better equipped” to multitask relative to men. It’s up to leaders to figure out the habits and systems that can prevent job creep — say, regular check-ins to ensure no new tasks have been added to the person’s role so they can focus on their actual responsibilities.

Intersectionality makes inclusion all the more vital

Inclusion doesn’t mean splitting people into one group or another and then accommodating them on the basis of just one trait. Every team has intersectionality, meaning people fit into many different boxes. Women leaders are also people of color, older workers, and people with disabilities. As teams continue to become more diverse, leaders must think about how they practice inclusion, not just in terms of gender but across other lines as well. How well are they developing and nurturing women of color? What gaps exist for older women? If leadership teams can’t figure out how to include women of all colors and creeds, they aren’t being truly inclusive. “When I enter a room, and you can tell when your ‘spidey senses’ are tingling and something isn’t going the right way, I have to ask myself, ‘Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m a person of color?’” Pruitt-Haynes said. The webinar’s third panelist, NLI facilitator Marcia Smythe, who’s based out of the United Kingdom, echoed Pruitt-Haynes, noting the prevalence of ageism against women in her region. While the U.S. may be facing more issues related to the intersectionality of gender and race, Smythe noted the range of challenges facing women around the world highlights how personal biases can be.

Rewarding team success over individual wins

A key mistake many companies make is focusing on individual performance at the expense of team performance. What ends up happening is people begin to compete with one another and jockey for recognition when they should be cooperating. If the overarching goal is to create equitable experiences for everyone, this competitive culture becomes counterproductive. Instead, Lynn says, give feedback and reward performance on a group basis. Call out team wins instead of individual achievements. Signal to everyone that “we” is more important than “me.” Research has made it clear that these small changes shift our thinking away from self-interested motivation and instill a larger sense of purpose that can make even the most selfish individuals invested in team goals. This shift in how people are rewarded also helps women thrive because it creates greater equity for everyone. It doesn’t entrench existing leaders, who may be majority male, as the saviors of their teams; rather, it acknowledges that high performance is a team effort, which men and women share equally.

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