The numbers of managerial and executive women continue to grow throughout the world. However, many organisations have generally done little to understand women’s careers. Women are now making it clear to organisations that they lead different lives than men and that the companies they represent, both large and small, need to pay closer attention to their concerns.

As women achieve greater successes, there is both a shift and broadening of struggles they typically face. Previously, gender-related hurdles like harassment, isolation and the need to prove themselves were their primary obstacles.

Now the emphasis is on the choices and trade-offs, the forces that influence their decisions, and strategies for constructing meaningful and fulfilling careers.

To better grasp the realities facing them, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) studied the experiences of dozens of high-achieving women who attended its Women’s Leadership Programme.

The women were mid- to senior-level managers, and the majority of whom worked for Fortune 500 companies.

Basically, high-achieving women feel they must make significant compromises to survive in organisations in which career-tracks are modelled after the stereotypical male experience.

An alarming outcome of ignoring this is a high turnover rate among women executives. This is a disturbing trend, costing companies the substantial investment they have made in their development, detrimentally limiting a company’s overall effectiveness and efforts to increase organisational diversity.

Given the increasing demands for leadership talent today, organisations can’t afford to underestimate the issues women face.

So what can organisations do to help women cultivate authenticity, wholeness, agency, connectedness and self-understanding — the five major themes identified in CCL’s research as key to managerial women — as they evolve as leaders?

The research uncovered several steps:

1. Increase the opportunities for women to learn from one another informally. Encourage the development of employee associations or networks for women. These homogeneous groups help managers share common experiences and concerns. Such relationships provide support and opportunities for informal feedback about their strengths and weaknesses as leaders.

2. Encourage women to take advantage of opportunities for formal developmental assessment: Structured assessment and feedback, such as that offered through 360-degree instruments, can be part of a larger development programme. 

3. Help decision-makers understand how to develop and create challenging assignments for women: Such assignments should take into account the extra challenges experienced by women managers. Too little challenge stifles growth; too much challenge overwhelms the learning process.

A female executive, who needs to broaden her understanding of the business, might be given an assignment that exposes her to new regions, lines of business, or functions. With proper support, she can flourish in this role.

4. Reflection opportunities: Although challenging situations provide opportunities for development, they do not guarantee it. Set aside time for women managers to reflect on their growth. Learning journals can facilitate the manager’s impressions of what they are learning. It is just as crucial that managers engaged in developmental experiences have the opportunity to consciously reflect on their learning.

5. Examine the formal developmental relationships presently offered in your organisation: Are formal and peer mentoring programmes and other opportunities genuinely accessible to women managers? These types of programmes provide learning opportunities and support to everyone involved, but they are especially important for overcoming the extra challenges faced by women.

Increasing gender diversity in organisations depends on more than a few select leadership development strategies. To maximise diversity, human resource systems need to be adapted to all managers.

Full inclusion of women requires thinking about the development expectations of women. The leadership development strategies discussed in this article are just part of the work. Succession planning, staffing, compensation, benefits policies and other policies need to be modified as well.

Above all, it is vital that the organisation leaders act as role models, demonstrating and supporting behaviours that encourage multiple ways to lead and advance in organisations.