What is the key to boosting gender equality at work?

Over the years, much of the discussion around gender equality has revolved around removing barriers and shattering glass ceilings. But rather than fixating on the obstacles in a woman’s way, I believe organizations should focus on carving out multiple paths for the many distinct types of women who have very different career goals.

Rapid changes in the workplace and society more generally have helped redefine what success is. And with every woman’s definition of success now being different, businesses must strive to enable and empower female talent at all levels of their organizations.

Read: Success lessons for women in the workplace

In my mind, support is key. Any organization can put programs and courses in place, but the real secret sauce involves sponsorship, role models and fostering a culture that allows women to succeed on their own terms.

Here are three tips to help organizations nurture the growth of their female workforce:

1. Encourage sponsorship

While almost half (47 per cent) of female corporate workers say they have a high level of motivation to advance their careers, fewer (32 per cent) believe it’s achievable to reach the senior executive level, and less than a third (28 per cent) aspire to it, according to new research commissioned by American Express Canada and Women of Influence.

So why are more women not aspiring to leader­ship roles?

Perhaps one reason is many Canadian women are lacking a champion to push their careers forward. Mentorship and sponsorship are still incredibly rare among female entrepreneurs and corporate workers with only 27 per cent of survey respondents saying they have a mentor and eight per cent a sponsor. That’s a big problem as the research shows corporate workers with a sponsor are almost twice as likely to believe reaching the senior executive level is achiev­able (61 per cent versus 32 per cent overall).

Read: Which Canadian employers are best for diversity?

With the majority of working women in Canada lacking a mentor or sponsor, they’re missing out on key relationships with leaders who could be guiding their careers and advocating for their professional advancement. After all, women with mentors or sponsors credit them with offering unbiased career advice, expanding their networks, encouraging them to go after opportunities and advocating on their behalf for jobs.

The primary difference between mentorship and sponsorship is that while employees can ask for a mentor, they must earn a sponsor. Sponsors endorse employees they see potential in and have a direct impact on their career advancement.

To encourage both, it’s important for organiza­tions to help younger employees understand the role mentorship and sponsorship can play in their career progression. Company leaders should also recog­nize the importance of developing protegés and the impact they can have on their own careers.

At American Express, we have a large group of executives who understand the importance of sponsorship and provide much-needed support and advice to employees at all levels of the organization. Without that culture of sponsorship, I might not be where I am. Women currently comprise about half (45 per cent) of American Express Canada’s senior leadership team, and the one thing that almost all of us have in common is that we’ve had sponsors take a chance on our careers.

Read:  How to create gender diversity in the workplace

Now, as a woman in a senior position, I believe I have an obligation to watch for and seek out talent in others. As a sponsor, I’m acting as a sounding board, providing career advice and trying to instil confidence whenever possible. I’m also learning and growing from every interaction. It really is a two-way street.

While many business leaders may find it chal­lenging to find the time to sponsor someone, those who do will be amazed at how much they get out of it and how much they enjoy it. It’s really exciting to watch an employee grow professionally and it’s an incredible opportunity to be the person who passes the torch.

2. Build networks of support

Employee networks are also key to developing talent. Organizations should strive to create networks of both personal and professional support for employees where they can rely on their peers for advice and encouragement at every turn. Companies need to encourage women to lean on one another, network more and not be afraid to ask for help.

All employees, of course, should have the opportunity to seek career development, education, support and mentoring. But in addition to setting up networks and groups, companies should ask leaders to host casual gatherings where employees can ask questions and seek advice in a more informal setting. In the end, it’s all about generating opportunities for employees to further develop their professional skills and inspiring them to reach their potential.

3. Foster ambition with flexible work

It seems that while more women are contributing equally to household income in 2016, things remain out of balance at home.

While almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of the women who participated in the survey were primary breadwinners or contributed equally to household income, nearly half of them (44 per cent) reported taking on more household responsibilities than their partner.

In addition, 47 per cent of women felt they’d made career sacrifices to benefit their partner or family. That compared to just 24 per cent who said their spouse had made sacrifices.

Read: 75% of global employers offer flexible working

The findings mean that while many women are highly ambitious in their careers, staying true to core family values is also a top priority. That’s why it’s absolutely essential for organizations to foster a flexible work culture by providing employees with the technology and tools to stay connected and pro­ductive from anywhere.

Flexible work helps employees balance work and home life and is vital in establishing an environment where people can succeed on their own terms.

Employees want their employers to value their contributions, something that starts with under­standing their unique needs and finding an arrange­ment that works. Whether relying upon flexible work locations and schedules or reduced working hours, the primary objective should always be to cre­ate an environment where there’s an open dialogue between managers and employees.

In a competitive business landscape, talent is a company’s best competitive advantage. If companies aren’t offering flexibility, they’re at risk of losing skilled employees who may decide a new role doesn’t mesh with their current position in life.

Read: Case study: How American Express is creating a culture of health

Businesses should aim to create a work culture that allows all employees to fully realize their own definition of success while providing a support struc­ture of role models and sponsors who inspire them to take chances, explore new learning opportunities and go after leadership roles.

An organization’s end goal should always be an environment of collaboration and innovation where women at all stages of life know it will support and encourage them and provide them with opportun­ities to grow.

That’s the kind of environment that builds con­fidence, cultivates ambition and, ultimately, creates real gender equality in the workplace.

Naomi Titleman is vice-president of human resources at American Express Canada.

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