For the first time in its 48-year history, the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos was chaired entirely by women. Sure, this was a great start. But the data on women’s attendance at Davos—regarded as the world’s top business forum—is not very promising. Only around 20% of the total attendees this year were women, highlighting the gender parity chasm in the business world.

There is substantive research which makes a clear case for greater inclusion of women. On a macroeconomic scale, the World Bank, through various papers, has said that countries can radically increase their gross domestic product (GDP) by augmenting the role of women in the economy. As per the International Labour Organization, in India, only about 27% of entry-level employees are women, and, over time, their representation in senior positions drops sharply. According to a report by Catalyst, a global non-profit organization, 48% of Indian women drop out of the pipeline before reaching the mid-career level, compared to the Asian average of 29%.

Organizations can play a key role in arresting the attrition. Top-down initiatives continue to be essential, but what is often ignored is the importance of everyday interactions at the workplace, which can be a catalyst for change. A 2014 report, “Everyday Moments Of Truth", by management consultancy Bain & Co. on the gender divide, showed that women (and men) make decisions about their careers based on daily interactions with their managers and peers.

There are four things that frontline leaders can do to improve inclusion and ambition in the workplace:

u Provide positive reinforcement and coaching. Aspiration and confidence require frequent reinforcement, especially during the occasional stumble that everyone faces. Help women regain their foothold with advice, counselling and encouragement. Invest in specific, actionable feedback and rigorous coaching. Focus on everyday interactions versus formal reviews.

u Publicly advocate and create opportunities for women with high potential. Go beyond simply supporting them to actively championing them. Behind-the-scenes support is valuable, but to advocate someone publicly shows you believe in her skills and leadership potential. In particular, encourage women to apply for “stretch" roles that propel them beyond their comfort zone and create opportunities for them. All leaders must take it upon themselves to champion the next generation of female leaders. In fact, the C-suite must be measured on driving development and advocacy of female leaders. Finally, ensure that each woman has more than one leader invested in her success.

u Celebrate diverse leadership styles. Help women with leadership potential chart their own course by celebrating their style. A key step in promoting different leadership styles is sensitizing the leadership about the different styles that exist and refraining from glorifying certain types of behaviour. Find practical ways to address the unconscious biases that creep up in everyday situations and when making decisions.

u Create flexible career paths to the top. Assuring women (and, frankly, men too) that there is more than one route to the top, rather than one stereotype of success, is invaluable in an environment where there are few visible female role models.

It is equally important to offer similar flexibility to men and to create male role models who share responsibility for priorities outside work. For instance, thoughtful paternity leave policies are essential to enable mothers to return to work. This requires a committed leadership team, willing supervisors, clarity in defining the job role, and, of course, performance measurement to focus on the outcomes achieved versus the time spent by the individual.

Having women in leadership positions can be a virtuous cycle. It encourages more women to aspire to rise to the top. Systematically setting inclusive policies from the top down while intensively training and sensitizing frontline managers will reinforce women’s confidence. Real change can only happen if it is embodied in our daily behaviours—and leaders truly walk the talk.

Yaquta Mandviwala and Megha Chawla are partners at Bain & Co. and lead the Women at Bain effort for the Asia-Pacific and India regions, respectively.

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