Q+A on Supporting Women Through the Employee Lifecycle

CoachHub · 4 May 2023 · 7 min read

Women are still underrepresented in top leadership roles globally and are on average still paid less than their male colleagues. Part of changing this reality is helping teams develop the best mindset to support women in all phases of the employee lifecycle.

CoachHub recently sat down with Valeria Cardillo Piccolino to discuss strategies to overcoming roadblocks in this area using executive coaching for women in a recent recording of the *Spark Leadership podcast. Valeria is a psychologist, coach and senior behavioural scientist with CoachHub. She is an organisational psychologist and ICF-accredited business coach whose main expertise lies in supporting the talent, organisational and leadership development strategy of big corporations, especially during delicate phases of cultural and organisational change. She has a background in HR consulting, coaching and training in various industries, from the United Nations to banking, from retail to no-profit, at an international level for more than 10 years. Her main mission is related to the development of ethical, green and inclusive leadership, in which ideally every employee can become a sustainability-oriented decision maker.

Here’s what Piccolino had to say about women’s leadership coaching and supporting women employees throughout their entire journey at your organisation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, tune in to Season 3 of the Spark Leadership podcast.

CoachHub: From your research, as well as your own professional experience, what are some of the most challenging headwinds that women face in leadership today?

Piccolino: Obviously, the answer is complex, but let’s imagine our protagonist. We can give her the name of Sara. And let’s imagine Sara has studied engineering, so she’s one of the few women engineers in society. The first challenge that she might have found on her path is that just a few women were role models in this field. The majority of her classmates, the professors, the business leaders that she was aiming to become one day, are males.

At the same time, Sara might have found a challenge when applying for a position in a company because the majority of candidates, especially in tech, especially in the so called STEM roles — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — are males. This is not valid only for STEM topics, but it’s valid also for roles in leadership. So still, in 2023, we know that the majority of senior leaders positions are covered by men as highlighted by global gender gap reports.

CoachHub: This sort of illustrates your work around all these different phases of the employee lifecycle. And you’re talking about this entry point and the inequity that women face before they even start their career. I wonder what interferences that you’ve also researched are intercepting in women as they progress, or what is holding women back from progressing in their careers?

Piccolino: When a woman enters a company where there hasn’t been an intentional effort towards creating an inclusive environment, there are a few challenges. You’re talking about progressing in the career. One of the challenges is that, for example, women very often are judged in slightly different ways. There is a phenomenon called role congruent. So how much am I as a woman, respecting the stereotype of what is expected from a woman?

If I am really adhering to the stereotype, I might be perceived as not ready for a leadership role, for example. Because women are often considered soft. But if I’m instead not adhering to this stereotype, I might be considered aggressive or bossy while a man on the same behaviours is judged as confident or showing leadership skills.

CoachHub: How is confidence perceived and also how does a woman internalise confidence to make this progression?

Piccolino: One of the big points is: Is there self-awareness about the strengths they can bring in a certain role? If they lack self-awareness about what their strengths are and how to develop these strengths into talents obviously they will tend to consider themself as imposters. This is called imposter syndrome. It is when we attribute our successes to luck instead of merit or skills. So one crucial aspect in self-confidence is the possibility for women, and I would say ideally for everyone, to bring their authentic self in the workplace. The more I can bring my authentic self, the more I can feel confident for who I am and develop myself within that context.

What does it mean to be really confident? You know, it’s really to be able to act in agreement with your own values, to feel confident in the fact that you are able to reach a certain result. So this is a concept of self-efficacy. This plays a huge, huge role in performance.

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CoachHub: One of the points in your Women In Leadership: Support Women Through the Employee Lifecycle guidebook touches on the subject that can be a little scary for people, and that is feedback. So for a number of reasons, it’s hard for women to receive accurate feedback at work, and this can have the unintentional effect of stalling their career trajectory. What are some of the reasons women don’t always get accurate feedback? What can our leaders do to ensure this isn’t happening in their workplace? How does business coaching for women help?

Piccolino: There are two factors that are both not helping women here. One is the situation in which a woman actually receives the feedback, but the feedback is not gender neutral.

Just to give you an example: Women who are acting against the common stereotype can be judged as aggressive, bossy, or too assertive. Men are instead just as confident, demonstrating leadership skills and assertive in a positive way. So this is a type of feedback that doesn’t really stick to the behaviour and is not helping the person to find solutions to improve.

The other extreme is the one in which instead women receive less feedback than men. So either they receive less feedback or it’s less actionable. And this is really connected to how much their manager really believes in their ability to succeed in a senior role.

CoachHub: Do you have any examples of how organisations have made systemic changes to counter this effect of stereotype bias or other inequities in the workplace? What role does executive coaching for women play?

Piccolino: First of all, we have to remember that biases are often playing at an unconscious level. So we all have biases, just we are not aware of them from one side. One action that many have tried is to train people on becoming aware of their unconscious biases, recognize them by saying that they have them and that they play a huge role, especially in people.

The training itself is important, but it’s not enough. So the companies that have best worked on this have also mixed a huge amount of work at a so-called hard level. It means, for example, making sure that the hiring process is gender neutral, reviewing how the job role is described to avoid gender annotated terminology, or make sure that maybe some blind interviews, some blind screening to resumes is applied.

Other types of hard initiatives can be to review the performance management system to make sure that it is really balancing skills and behaviours that are not only male annotated. So if there is, for example, a strong input on success, on winning on, let’s say, aggressive skills, this is often matching male to stereotype and is attracting more male in a role or is favouring male in that performance review.

CoachHub: And I wonder if you could talk a bit more about the larger impact of investing in women’s leadership coaching and women employees in general.

Piccolino: Very often women find through coaching the way to work on how to use their skills in the workplace and improve performance in their role. I would say that a company that really wants to maximise that impact needs to act in a systematic way. So they need to create a context that is inclusive for the woman.

If the leaders are not coached on how to improve their level of inclusivity, how to create an inclusive context, obviously the impact is reduced. And I also say there could be a boomerang effect because if I’m a woman, I become aware of my strengths and I don’t find an inclusive context. I might want to quit that company and move towards a more inclusive company.

So the companies that are seeing the highest level of impact are the ones that are acting systemically.

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