Talent management: just for men

Feb 26 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

With so many organisations still dominated by men at senior levels, talent management programmes, even without meaning to, will often favour the progression of men or those exhibiting macho, male-oriented leadership characteristics.

In fact, according to new research, even the most sophisticated talent management programme can be vulnerable to this type of gender bias, which can sometimes be subconsciously embedded within it, such is the predominance of men in the boardroom.

Research by consultancy Catalyst, Cascading Gender Biases, Compounding Effects: An Assessment of Talent Management Systems, has concluded that many such programmes unconsciously reflect, and therefore promote, the traits exhibited by that organisation's top (and predominantly male) executives.

The consultancy collected data from 110 corporations and firms representing 19 different industries and then interviewed 30 talent management experts from 24 organisations as well as examining documents from many firms that conducting an online survey of 86 corporations and firms.

What it found was that in many organisations executives set the tone while employees mirrored those traits that had made the existing senior leaders successful.

Therefore when it came to promoting and nurturing talent, in those organisations where perceptions of leadership were described by masculine stereotypes, employees tended to be viewed as less competent if they demonstrated qualities, characteristics, and skills considered atypical, or feminine.

This led to a perpetual cycle of bias against women and meant that organisations risked overlooking and under-utilising women high performers, argued Catalyst.

And, since there was now a welter of evidence available to businesses to show that teams with diverse leaderships tended to outperform those with less diversity in their top echelons, this potential talent loss could have a profound effect on an organisation's performance and sustainability.

"Businesses restrict their own growth potential when women are unintentionally excluded from key training and advancement opportunities," warned Ilene H Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst.

"Whether the economy is up or down, who gets promoted Ė and who gets left behind Ė has substantial consequences for business success," she added.

"Everyone is a stakeholder in developing and retaining top talent. Smart companies will seize the opportunity to ensure that their own talent management systems deliver on the promise of tapping into all talent," she continued.

The solution, she argued, was for firms to work harder at develop programming talent management programmes that targeted the needs of each business unit, while at the same time examining the various forms of gender stereotyping.

It was also important to educate leaders about how gender stereotypes could negatively influence job assignments and performance appraisals.

Employees at all levels could be better trained to recognise effective gender-neutral leadership characteristics, Lang advised.

Firms could do more to review practices from other companies and create strategies that increased development and advancement opportunities for women.

At the same time, there was probably room for more dialogue among senior leaders and employees around talent management and what sort of people the organisation needed for the future.

Finally, it was important for organisations to evaluate the presence of gender-stereotypic language within talent management systems.

"Recognising the ways in which leadership traits might influence company culture can assist executives in developing talent management systems that address gender biases and stereotypes," argued Lang.

"This knowledge will help break down barriers that inhibit organisations from achieving gender diversity in leadership and in business itself," she added.

The findings may help explain why so many women find themselves in a Catch-22 when it comes to trying to break through into senior positions.

Too much confidence is often seen as off-putting by male-dominated hiring panels, yet being too modest and "feminine" is also likely to get you written off as a no-hoper.

Research in January by Newark's Rutgers University psychology department, for example, came to just this conclusion.

Women who came across as ambitious, competitive and capable could put themselves at as much of a disadvantage as those who presented themselves as competent yet modest in their abilities.

Similarly, a study by consultancy Hudson back in November concluded that the global recession could, if anything, make it even harder for women to break into the boardroom as male senior managers promote those who exhibit more familiar "male" characteristics.

This was despite evidence suggesting that, in many ways, the more empathetic, emotionally intelligent management style of many women meant they were generally much less suited to be in charge in difficult times.