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Diversifying your leadership team also requires a support strategy

Your organizational responsibility doesn't end when you hire more diverse leaders. New research provides insight on how to support female supervisors in international organizations.

"What makes teams smarter? More women" - many of us are familiar with that provocatively titled Harvard Business Review (HBR) article. Leaders, staff and stakeholders in international organizations all recognize their diverse constituencies, and the logic of having a diverse workforce representative of their constituents. As a result all international organizations have some form of diversity strategy or policy, increasingly with a focus on diversifying leadership teams where gaps still remain.

But once hired, how effectively are these diverse leaders able to do their jobs? New research takes a look at how employees respond to female supervisors in government and non-profits

woman with surprised expression juggling toy balls

in terms of trust and following their directions. This research by professors at Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has led our practitioner team to come up with some innovative tips for international organizations on how to support female supervisors better.

The researchers set up a simulation in which employees in non-profits and government organizations were provided verbal directions and written directions by male and female supervisors with the aim of implementing specific organizational policies and rules. Through a series of survey questions, they assessed the level of trust in each supervisor and the extent to which employees were willing to follow the direction provided.

Both female and male employees showed lower levels of trust in the female supervisor than the male supervisor. In terms of following direction, male employees tended to have higher rates of compliance with male supervisor and women had higher rates of compliance with the female supervisor. When the policies to be implemented were conveyed in writing instead of orally, they were perceived more neutrally and compliance improved for both supervisors (with a somewhat higher increase for the female supervisor). Additionally, the female supervisor was also perceived to be more trustworthy when directions were conveyed in writing.

Our ReformWorks practitioners' team has identified several concrete implications of this research for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion specialists international organizations. Essentially, diverse recruitment and outreach strategies should always be accompanied by internal support strategies to ensure these diverse hires can do their job. These need to go beyond creating an enabling environment for staff with families and include some, if not all, of the following measures to support female and diverse leaders and supervisors to overcome any unconscious biases, such as the trust gap highlighted in this research.

Concrete measures to support female supervisors and leaders are:

  1. Supervisors across the organization should be encouraged to meet regularly with their teams, while emphasizing the importance of putting meeting decisions and outcomes in writing. This helps build trust for all supervisors and reinforces performance and accountability, while leveling the playing field for female supervisors. These management techniques should also be systematically reinforced in leadership and management training.

  2. Ensure that all leaders have sufficient support staff to help them provide direction in writing and record minutes of all their meetings (or if resources are limited, ensure that female and male leaders have equal levels of support staff). As a first step, assess how many support staff your leaders have across the organization and identify any differences in terms of support staff provided to female or other diverse leaders.

  3. Continuous efforts should be make to ensure that staff and supervisors alike are familiar with organizational policies and rules so that supervisors can refer to these written rules with their teams. This can consist of handbooks, or induction or other training programs, and will help level the playing field for female supervisors in implementing organizational policies and regulations.

  4. Because so many international organizations are focused on crisis situations, where stereotypically male leadership traits tend to be valued such as decisiveness, it will be particularly important for female leaders managing crisis to be supported. Reinforcing their authority in writing, and ensuring they have sufficient staff to be able to communicate their direction and policy response in writing during the crisis are key. Crisis management training which exists in many organizations should also ensure that staff and supervisors are well versed with organizational policies and roles and responsibilities to mitigate any gender bias against women in these roles.

To find out more

Piatak, Jaclyn, Jared McDonald & Zachary Mohr. "The Role of Gender in Government and Nonprofit Workplaces: An Experimental Analysis of Rule Compliance and Supervisor Trust". Public Administration Review, 82, no. 3 (2022): pp. 556–569. © 2022 DOI:10.1111/puar.13469.


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