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Focus on Critical Soft Skills is the Only Sure Way to Close the Gender Gap

By Numly - Leadership Coaching Group
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It is heartening to see organizations across industries recognize the unique challenges of women that eventually lead to women having to choose between careers or personal lives. There is enough proof that shows the inequities at work that make it difficult for women to return back to work post a sabbatical. Events like marriage or motherhood and other societal expectations have been significant contributors to attrition. 

Organizations now realize that building equity by establishing strong ‘return to work’ strategies is a sure-fire way to retain a trained and qualified workforce, something that makes sense in the wake of a widening skills gap.

While women seem to have broken through the barriers, and we find many women return to work, we still see that the more senior the group, the fewer the number of women there. We still see a more balanced representation of women in younger groups, so what causes this asymmetry as women progress across their careers?

Why are women still feeling the impact of gender bias and structural disadvantages? Isn’t talent management skewed if organizations are not committed to helping women advance to leadership roles?

Organizations have to take intentional steps and plan for creating an organization where equity and inclusion trump. One of the moves is initiatives like ‘return to work’. However, a close look at these initiatives shows that they are addressing mainly one part of the puzzle. 

Most of the initiates that organizations undertake to ‘build’ women are designed to increase their technical skills. Building technical skills are essential to help women catch up with their colleagues and contribute more efficiently towards organizational outcomes.

But is this enough to close the gender gap? The answer simply is, no.

Technical skills are one part of the whole

Closing the gender gap demands organizations to create opportunities for growth for women. This extends beyond upskilling and reskilling initiatives and building on greater technical skills.

A well-thought-out initiative will focus on training women to build their social capital as well as their intellectual capital and help them identify the entire gamut of skills they need to navigate the hurdles that stand in the way of their career progression.

Developing critical soft skills are critical for equity and equality.

Research shows that even after decades of work towards making women and men equal partners in the economy and society at large, the gap still remains. Offering women the same growth opportunities and delivering a ‘full potential’ scenario can add up to $28 trillion, or 26%, to annual global GDP by 2025. 

Much like men, women too, enter the workforce with a desire to reach the pinnacle of success. The playing field is, however, more equal for men than it is for women. Men automatically get access to powerful networks and can capably build their own trust networks and bridges. This is mainly because of preconceived notions and deep elements of social conditioning that give them more access owing to numbers – there are, after all, more men than women in the workforce even today.

Women need to hone and develop certain critical soft skills that help them move ahead along their career paths. Introducing peer coaching across the organization to help women develop critical soft skills such as negotiation, change management, assertiveness, etc. that will help them reach leadership roles.

The battle between social conditioning and reality

Focusing on developing critical soft skills for women returning to work is essential to give women the right tools to help them battle, differentiate, and educate those around them on the difference between social conditioning and reality.

Women shoulder many roles and responsibilities. They balance careers while acting as primary caregivers in most cases. Ironically, they are still considered as people who cannot handle the ‘pressures’ of the workplace. Women are also preconditioned to feel greater degrees of ‘guilt’ for having thriving careers, especially post motherhood. Research shows that a third of working mothers contemplate quitting their jobs post their return to work after their maternity break.

Just like how organizations focus on helping employees deal with change brought about with events such as mergers and acquisitions or even digital transformation, they need to help women accommodate and adjust to the massive change in their life. Marriage and motherhood are two massive events in a woman’s life and it is about time organizations do not add to the burden of expectations but help women identify and navigate the barriers keeping them from reaching their full potential.

Organizations need to establish peer coaching networks to help women navigate this transition and develop the skills that help them manage their work and personal lives with greater control and resilience. With such networks, they can build the right skills to thrive personally and professionally in the workplace.

It is when we help women manage the change in their lives that the technical training investment will not go to waste. Because the woman will not feel overwhelmed, but rather will be empowered to take on the forces that become detrimental to her success.  

Build advancement networks

Building critical soft skills of the women employees also becomes essential to promote allyship within the organization. By building skills like empathic communication, women can convey what they want to say instead of worrying about perception.

Women also need to focus on unlearning deep unconditional biases. A focus on developing critical skills that every high-potential woman employee should be groomed on helps them 

  • Accept their own leadership styles and develop their own leadership vocabulary.
  • Break the norms that say that a well-spoken or opinionated woman is ‘aggressive’.
  • Identify the right skills and the manner of communication that will yield the best results. 
  • Build greater trust in themselves and take that ‘can do’ attitude further.

Giving women access to peer coaches provides them with a safe space to unconditionally reveal their fears and challenges. It also gives them the opportunity to network better and build the skills to leverage these networks for career advancement.

Adjusting the workplace thought processes

When women enter the workplace, they need to know that things that they have no control over shall not be held against them. When women return to the workforce from family or maternity breaks, conventional wisdom places the onus of adjusting back to work on them. In addition to the generous maternity leaves and feeding rooms (in a few cases), women need support when they return to work.

Almost 90% of women who return to work complain that they do not receive the support in the form of one-on-one coaching and are simply expected to hit their desks and work. Flexible work policies do solve a piece of the problem. However, women continue to fear being ‘mommy tracked’ into less demanding, lower-paying jobs.

What women want is better treatment in the workplace and more holistic return to work programs that drive equity and inclusion and build belonging. Organizations have to approach women’s leadership with more maturity and empathy and make sure that they empower their women employees every step of the way. Organizations have to sensitize themselves and their workforce on the subtle differences and the social inequities at work and the internalized unconscious biases at work to level the playing field for women.

In Conclusion

Creating an enabling environment and giving women access to non-judgemental spaces to address their problems, seek solutions, and develop the right technical and social skills help women become engaged and truly satisfied at work. When women become happy professionally, when they are assured that their uniqueness is not a barrier to professional growth, and when they see an organization invested in building equity and inclusion, they are more likely to perform exceptionally. The gender gap then closes organically as a consequence of true empowerment. 

Grab a copy of Numly’s DEIB white paper discussing the deficiency in diversity and inclusion efforts, how a shift in mindset can reshape the future of the workplace, and how comprehensive and discerning Peer Coaching programs are critical to scaling Leadership Development and an Inclusion Culture across your Global Remote / Hybrid Work Teams.

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