There is little good in encouraging women leaders to flourish if there is nowhere for them to go, says Kerrin Miller.

The scarcity of women in leadership roles is well known. Within the South African context, a 2018 report showed that only 29% of senior roles in South African organisations are filled by women.i

The lack of progress towards gender equity in organisations is complex. Even the ways of describing this are varied and multi-layered. While the metaphor of a ‘glass ceiling’ seems to be the most widely used, this is increasingly seen as inaccurate. A recent article in Harvard Business Review notes: ‘In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage’.ii

Women’s career advancement may be more accurately described as a ‘labyrinth’: a metaphor that conveys a route neither linear nor straightforward, which requires resilience, deep self-insight and the solving of problems both predictable and not.

AN ORGANISATIONAL RESPONSE

In response to these challenges, a pan-African investment bank, headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, launched an accelerated development programme for women. This included in-person, individual coaching to accelerate and embed behaviour change.1 When reflecting on over 150 coaching sessions, a number of insights emerged. While there was little doubt that coaching was effective in building the individual capability in female leaders, organisational obstacles were preventing progress.

Coaching individual women without addressing the systemic context and organisational culture – particularly its underlying power structures and how they intersect with gender and race – seems ineffective and even potentially destructive. It requires coaches to work on the axis of simultaneously helping ‘both the individual and the organisation achieve greater success, where the value they receive from each other is maximised and/or transformed’.iii

The wider system, it appears, needs to be coached to unlock the return on investment of this initiative. Addressing themes of power, privilege, bias and systemic context is required to harness the individual shifts and reap the real organisational value of women – and the benefit this brings to the bottom line. It requires that lead coaches and programme designers speak up and engage courageously about the danger of creating a cadre of women ready to step up without removing the organisational obstacles to enable them to do so. It needs coaches to elevate organisational stakeholders’ views and help them to see the situation holistically to gain perspective. As Eagly and Carli suggest, ‘labyrinths become infinitely more tractable when seen from above.’ii

HOW TO DO IT

‘Elevating the perspective’ is best started in pre-programme engagements with senior leaders, sponsors and human resource partner to gain clarity on:

  • the alignment of the women’s development initiative to its wider business and inclusion strategy
  • the organisation’s expected outcomes and how success will be measured
  • its cultural readiness for systemic change
  • its leadership capability around inclusion
  • its openness to explore and address the possible obstacles at play
  • its communication plan about this initiative to both the women involved and wider system
  • its focus areas in building an inclusive workplace

Next, engagement needs to include people managers. Studies have confirmed that the ‘calibre and quality of the relationship between line manager and coachee had a significant impact on creating the micro- climate in which the female leaders operated’.iv Recent data suggests that inclusive leadership practices explain almost half of any employee’s experience of inclusion.v Perhaps our most important role as coaches is to advocate for and assist in building inclusive leadership practises across people managers.

Practically this could: involve: including people managers in programme launch sessions; on-boarding them around their role in the programme; socialising them around inclusive leadership practises; driving alignment in three-way coaching objective setting conversations; and tracking their observations on participant changes.

Without this, coaching women in organisations may, ultimately, be more about walls than about wings.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerrin is an industrial psychologist and credentialled coach (PCC, ICF) with over 25 years’ experience. Starting her career as an HR business partner within South Africa and the UK, on completing her MA she spent ten years consulting in the areas of learning and leadership. Since 2014 Kerrin has led a team of psychologists and coaches that has worked with over 500 pan-African leaders and leadership teams. She is passionate about using a blend of digitisation and psychology to develop strengths- focused, resilient, change-agile, inclusive and purpose driven leaders.


1. See ‘Growing wings isn’t enough’, Coaching Perspectives Issue 24, January 2020 for more on the design and impact of the programme.

i. businesstech.co.za/news/business/230319/women-in-senior-roles-in-south- africa-on-the-up/. (Visit catalyst.org and leanin.org for useful data and resources

ii. Eagly, A..H & Carly, LL. (2007). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review, September, 2007. p1-10.

iii. Kahn, M. (2018). Coaching on the axis. Routledge, Abingdon.

iv. Bonneywell, S. (2017). How a coaching intervention supports the development of female leaders in a global organisation. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. S11, p57-69.
v. catalyst.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Getting-Real-About-Inclusive- Leadership-Report-2020update.pdf