The Added Challenge for Small Companies and Departments

By: Michelle Bogan

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Whether your company or department has 15 people or 150, if you did not start your business with a gender-balanced team, achieving gender parity can feel like an insurmountable challenge. I’m here to tell you it is not.

The most common challenges I hear from smaller companies are that they cannot recruit women, that they cannot afford to offer maternity leave or part-time arrangements, and that women don’t have the same networks that would make them successful in smaller business models. I also hear that there are so few roles at the top it would take forever for a woman or multiple women to get there.

I hear this from male leaders across multiple industries who have a desire to make a difference but feel hamstrung by how they are looking at their situation. The key here is in how they are looking at things. Because I know there are creative ways to solve all of these issues. They may cost a little more up-front and take some effort, but the payback will be huge.

Remember, every 1% increase in gender diversity yields a 3% increase in revenue, and gender-balanced leadership teams are 15% more likely to outperform their industry. Gender-balanced and female leadership also yields a 20% increase in innovation revenue. These data points are cross-industry and regardless of size of business. The payback is real.


You’ve got to stretch out of your comfort zone. The women are out there. You may need to take a new approach to get to them, or to get them to really consider you, if you are in an industry that doesn’t employ a lot of women. This is especially true for women who are looking to grow longer term at a company — you have to build their trust.

If you rely on recruiting through referrals and the same schools every year, you need to mix it up and reach out through new people, networks, women’s groups, networking organizations, and schools. You need to be able to articulate the value to a woman in joining your firm, especially if she is going to be one of a few women or the only woman.

[Related: Four Ways to Invest in Your Talent Acquisition to Succeed in a Candidate-Driven Market]

Maternity leave.

If you feel your business model cannot accommodate someone taking three months off of work, you have a flawed business model. People get sick, quit, have family emergencies, and experience all kinds of unplanned major life events that disrupt their work schedules for extended periods of time.

You need plans in place to make those work in a way that won’t take the business down. Three months paid leave is nothing in the grand scheme of things. You also will not be able to recruit and retain talented women without having this in place. Paid maternity leave beyond FMLA is table stakes nowadays.

Flex time.

If you cannot come up with a way to make reduced hours work within your current staffing model, look to outside resources for fill-in options. There are many companies that have launched in recent years that specialize in placing people (primarily women) fresh off a break from full-time work who have deep skills to apply and want to do so on a project or shorter-term basis.

You can also form a cooperative arrangement with others in your industry who have a similar challenge and are not competitors. There is tremendous support for creative solutions here. The employee trust and loyalty you will gain as a result is priceless.

[Related: Seven Skills That Give Me and My Family the Time and Money to Travel]

Building women’s networks.

If you feel the women you interview or work with do not have the networks to drive their success — whether for business development, skill development, or something else — bring them into your network.

Develop sponsorship initiatives to encourage or even incentivize others in your company, department, or business partners to do the same. Pay for women to join professional networks in their area. This is absolutely a “rising tides lift all boats” situation.

Getting women into leadership.

Creativity really pays off here. There are many ways to create paths to leadership development and leadership responsibility to offset getting to a top role in a short period of time. You absolutely need to create a path to a top level, AND you need to supplement that with other roles that develop those skills and networks before getting to the official role.

This can be through rotational roles that oversee regional or some other subset of business, or leading a major strategic initiative — as long as it has measurable outcomes that count toward promotion criteria. As you grow, be sure to keep the path-to-the-top options front-of-mind. This is also a great opportunity to do cross-departmental or cross-divisional succession planning as a way to open up new paths outside a given silo.

At the end of the day, the solutions are there. It is a matter of challenging your assumption that something will not work, asking why, and digging deeper. Add a little risk acceptance, creativity, and a willingness to try something — even if you don’t know for certain that it will work — and you will get there.

[Related: Want to Help Women in Business Advance? Here’s the Missing Link]

Throughout her twenty-five-year career, Michelle Bogan has mentored colleagues and clients, founded and led women’s groups, and helped promote many women and men to leadership positions. In 2018, she founded Equity for Women to advance the mission of empowering women at work.

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