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A toolkit to empower women and boost career prospects

by | Feb 27, 2024

Amira KohlerAmira Kohler, a top HR and Change Consultant with a wealth of global experience, ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, explains the importance of promoting allyship among men and women, modernising performance management practices, and equipping women with the necessary skills and support to succeed in the workplace. She will join us at our Think Global Women event at the IoD in London.

Equipping women with the necessary skills and support to succeed in the workplace is a priority now, more than ever.  Amira Kohler is a Fellow of the CIPD and a top HR and Change Consultant with a wealth of global experience and an expert in modernising performance management practices.   Ahead of International Women’s Day, she shares her views on how to make a difference to gender equity.

Allyship on an individual and organisational level

Both individual and organisational allyship are crucial for supporting women in the workplace and building teams which enable women to flourish and grow.  Individual allyship involves building networks and sharing experiences, while organisational allyship involves deliberate actions by leaders to promote gender equality.

“If we encourage women to build networks within teams and within organisations, they can share their stories about handling issues that they have come across and the skills they have developed and communication techniques they have mastered,” Amira says.

She says it is important to encourage women to build networks and share their stories regarding issues such as handling subjective, vague and gender-biased feedback, representing themselves well during pay negotiations or promotion rounds.

“Allyship requires a level of trust and familiarity and achieving that can be more challenging now that so many employees work remotely or in teams spread across different geographies,” she explains.

Amira specialises in change management, performance management and HR systems implementation and adoption. She is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). She has held Director of Performance and Change roles for many HR software companies and consultancies. Her previous roles have included Head of Talent Management at Barclays Bank, People Transformation Consultant at KPMG and as an HR consultant at British Airways, dividing her time between London and New York.

“In order to build networks and trust and familiarity there needs to be certain amount of scaffolding put in place in organisations to support women. Some of it is about deliberately creating opportunities for people to come together and share stories and build trust, such as through female empowerment networks or events like the Think Global Women event,” she says.

At the organisational level, leaders can act as allies through deliberate and symbolic acts of support for women. “Men in authority recognising the value of strong, powerful women and communicating the commercial value of gender equality can be incredibly powerful allies and set an example for others,” she says.

“I remember many years ago at a Barclays Top Talent identification meeting, the male Head of Private Clients sending a very strong message about a female maternity returner. There was a lot of debate about whether the woman would return and could operate at the same high level as before her maternity leave. He stopped the debate and said “she is a strong female performer and she is going on the talent list. And we will all create a mutually supportive environment to ensure that when she returns she thrives, because it will benefit all of us”. I suspect 20 years on, we all remember that moment!”

Amira Kohler (Middle) at our Think Women Inspire Inclusion event on 8 March 2024

Gender Bias in Performance Management

Amira says that outdated terminology around performance and annual reviews is holding all employees back – but particularly women.

“The very first challenge is the terminology and premise of the ‘performance appraisal” she explains. “A modern, engaging, fairer, and ultimately more effective approach, which leads to higher performance is Continuous Performance Management. This features short-term (not annual) objectives and frequent check-ins (rather than an annual appraisal).

An appraisal sounds like (and usually feels like) the teacher’s report. It is very paternalistic and not very effective. More progressive organisations ensure that feedback is fluid, frequent, real-time and multi directional from clients, peers, subordinates, colleagues (not just the manager),” she says.

“The legacy of performance management goes back a hundred years to Henry Ford’s Model T factory, where efficiency and productivity strides were made. Employees were treated a bit like cogs in a machine; the manager just told the men (and yes, they were all men!) what to do and told them to get on with it. “It worked a century ago but that process and mentality has tended to prevail far longer than it should in a modern organisation which is much more complex and nuanced.”

The manager as performance coach

A modern approach to performance management revolves around a manager and employee building a close, trusting and well-informed relationship where the manager recognises the individual’s strengths, weaknesses, foibles, personal circumstances.

Amira says we need to guide managers to behave more as a coaches, not purely as a directive boss.

“If a manager creates a more trusting relationship where they understand the ‘person inside the employee’, it will lead to much greater results for both parties.”

This type of approach benefits everyone (not just women) because we all want to be treated like individuals and we will all inevitably experience life events and hurdles which affect our advancement. However, there are specific issues facing women which a continuous and transparent performance management process supports:

  • Women suffer from gender-biased performance reviews. Harvard Business Review analysis shows that women are 1.4 time more likely to receive critical subjective feedback than men (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback that men get).
  • The Harvard research found that women and men receive different feedback for identical behaviour, quoting the example of a female employee’s ‘analysis paralysis’ versus a male peer’s ‘careful thoughtfulness’.
  • The HBR analysis found that women also tend to receive more vague feedback than men do, which can be hard to interpret and handle.
  • Women have a tendency to under-rate themselves, and men to over-rate themselves. “This needs to be understood in the context of self-appraisal, when women may well under-sell themselves”, Amira explains.

These gender-biased patterns of behaviour can be resolved by organisations implementing gender-neutral, real-time feedback tools which reduce the bias. It can also be reduced by asking for real-time feedback from a range of observers – clients, colleagues, other managers and subordinates.

The importance of good performance data

A good performance management system which enables the capture and reporting of meaningful performance data can provide tangible evidence on important themes such as:

  • the spread of performance ratings and whether there’s a gender bias
  • whether women consistently under-rate themselves (compared to men and what their clients and colleagues say) which might feed into ratings (and therefore pay)
  • the retention of female returners after maternity leave, parental care and other life events
  • how well a department and manager is doing at retaining valuable female talent
  • patterns regarding the promotion of women versus men, including female returners
  • information regarding the gender pay gap / gender retention gap / gender promotion gap etc.

Amira emphasises the importance of collecting performance data throughout the year to ensure a well-informed performance review reflects on performance information, feedback and data which has built up over the year. This avoids the manager scrabbling together information at the last minute for the performance review which can lead to omissions, assumptions and bias.

Good empirical performance data can also be used to understand the value of female career breakers and how critical it is to retain them and ensure a smooth and effective return to the workplace. Making the case for retaining top talent, particularly female talent, in terms of the positive impact on profitability and customer reputation, as well as enhanced profits could persuade even the most hard-nosed CEO and MD to put in structures and cultures to ensure women remain.

Flexibility in Work Arrangements

Flexible working is a huge enabler for female returners to work. Where there is organisational reluctance to embrace flexible working this can be due to outdated thinking and lack of creativity and courage, Amira says

.“There are so many flexible working solutions which technology can enable such as term-time contacts, remote and hybrid working, part-time and reduced hours, job-shares and the offer for people to work non-traditional hours.

“There is a lot of data that proves that losing valuable women through career changes or childcare, eldercare or the menopause can be economically detrimental for organisations,” she says.“

From a brand perspective, it is a much better employee value proposition from an employer if women are being cherished and there are opportunities to come back after maternity leave or other career breaks.”

A Toolkit for Empowerment

All employees, but particularly women, need to build up their communication skills, resilience, time management skills, negotiation skills, contracting skills and the ability to say “no” firmly and politely.

“Resilience is pivotal, and it is so important to understand how to how to keep your nerve and your self-esteem intact, despite issues that inevitably will go wrong, whether you are a man or a woman,” Amira says. “For example, you are entitled to cry, but maybe don’t cry in the office.”

Equally it is important that we train and upskill managers on tricky areas such as unconscious bias; how to support maternity returners; the implications of menopause and how to handle sensitive and personal issues such as conversations about ill-health, flexible working requests and stress. This will build a more resilient workforce overall and equip women with the skills they need to thrive.

“This stuff is never easy but I’d suggest giving managers prompts for these types of conversation, a practical kit bag (do’s and don’ts) and explaining to them that intention and understanding is what matters most,” Amira explains. “Good managers make a positive difference every day, and these practical aids can help them get better at people management. In turn that helps us all.”

Book your space on Turbocharging Performance: people-powered leadership to maximise talent

Amira Kohler joins leading experts and peers in an international masterclass applying new strategies and techniques to turbocharge performance and optimise valuable talent.