27 September 2023

Shattering glass: The role of inclusive managers

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Kristen Senz* discusses how inclusive managers create glass-shattering organisations.

Unless men embrace their role in eliminating gender bias and barriers, organisations and institutions will never leverage the value that women bring to the workplace.

“Most positions of power are still held by men,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative and co-author of the new book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. “They have lots of opportunity to change the structures themselves.”

The authors of Glass Half-Broken weave academic research with practical advice for inclusive business leadership, while also attempting to raise awareness about gender inequality for early- and mid-career professionals as well as women at the senior executive level.

Although significant progress has been made over the past 50 years, women still hold only a fraction of leadership positions and board seats at major companies, and the gender pay gap persists.

While young women are aware of these systemic problems, the more nuanced forms of sexism that persist today often take them by surprise, say Ammerman and co-author Boris Groysberg, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at HBS.

“It happens very quickly,” says Groysberg, reflecting on interviews with college students and young professionals conducted for the book.

“It’s really within that first year that they start to say, ‘This doesn’t feel quite right.

“It doesn’t seem like I’m getting the same amount of support and attention.

“I don’t think I’m being treated the same.’”

Even in the best circumstances, many women interpret setbacks as personal failings rather than structural barriers, which harms their self-confidence.

Add in a devastating pandemic that has forced many mothers to scale back professional duties to support children at home, and deeply embedded stereotypes about women as caregivers and men as breadwinners start to resurface with more intensity.

“When your child runs in during your Zoom call,” says Ammerman, “that’s perceived very differently than when your male colleague’s child runs in during his Zoom call.

“I think it just produces an enormous amount of stress.”

Steps toward gender equality

In Glass Half-Broken, Ammerman and Groysberg recommend a series of best practices along seven critical dimensions to organisations that want to work toward parity, not for cosmetic reasons, but to improve performance and value:

  • Attraction and recruitment.

Actively seek candidates outside managers’ networks, and assess the language used to describe jobs and the company.

  • Hiring.

Educate managers about the gender biases that influence hiring decisions.

Companies should also anonymise resumes, diversify interview panels, and evaluate candidates as a group against a set of defined criteria.

  • Integration.

Create opportunities for people to work toward shared goals with people who are different from them.

Discourage exclusionary social activities, and make sure that teams don’t treat women as outliers or extraneous.

  • Development.

Assess how managers assign training and development opportunities, and ensure they use objective criteria.

Increase women’s access to mentors and sponsors.

  • Performance assessment.

Educate managers about gender biases that can influence evaluation decisions.

Assess the criteria managers use to rate performance, and eliminate ambiguous, vague, and malleable standards.

  • Promotion and compensation.

Set clear and transparent parameters for salary offers and raises.

Review the outcomes of promotion and compensation decisions by race, gender, and other identity characteristics.

  • Retention. Track attrition and tenure by gender.

Combat flexibility stigma by focusing on measurable aspects of performance, and don’t turn a blind eye to high performers who harass.

Despite these efforts, the authors stress that success is unlikely unless the people leading these initiatives truly commit to long-term improvement.

Equality as a competitive advantage

Looking forward, Ammerman and Groysberg envision a class of “glass-shattering organisations” that will become employers of choice for women, giving these companies an edge as they harness the value of diverse teams.

Companies that take the lead in gender parity will position themselves to draw even the most discerning women in senior management.

“Either you’re the kind of company that’s in the lead on this, and that will become a self-perpetuating advantage, or you’re the kind of company that is left behind, and you’re going to set yourself back in terms of talent drain,” Ammerman says.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much middle ground.”

In the meantime, men in leadership positions must prioritize gender equality to facilitate lasting progress, especially after the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Groysberg says.

As a gender scholar and a father, Groysberg longs for a world in which his two daughters can follow their ambitions, without a ceiling that limits their potential.

On a practical level, Ammerman and Groysberg hope Glass Half-Broken helps women understand what they’re up against in today’s work world and acts as a resource they can recommend to their male colleagues.

If enough people assume responsibility for making the changes that research shows can reduce inequities, they say, the results will benefit organisations and individuals in the long run.

“There’s no reason that gender needs to be an engine of inequality,” Ammerman says.

“It’s totally possible for us to have institutions that are not organised that way and that don’t perpetuate disadvantage.

“It’s our choice.

“It’s whether we want to do the work to make those changes.”

*Kristen Senz is a contributor at HBS Working Knowledge.

This article first appeared at forbes.com.

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