Going Up? Elevating Women in Leadership

Look around the table at your next board meeting. How about your corner offices? How balanced is the gender ratio when it comes to your company’s leadership? For most Utah businesses, the scales tip heavily toward men, and the Women’s Leadership Institute is looking to help even things out with its statewide ElevateHer Challenge.

“Utah is looked upon as a leader in many different areas, but we get a black eye when it comes to women in leadership and political office,” says Pat Jones, Women’s Leadership Institute CEO. “It’s not just that gender diversity is needed because it’s the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do, because it’s great for business.”

Utah isn’t alone in leadership gender imbalance. There are plenty of women working—according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women make up around 60 percent of the workforce nationally (it’s just over 61 percent in the Beehive State). But there aren’t as many women proportionately rising the senior management ranks.

A recent study published by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company summarized, “Women are still underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline. Many people assume this is because women are leaving companies at higher rates than men or due to difficulties balancing work and family. However, our analysis tells a more complex story: women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership.”

The Women’s Leadership Institute is dedicated to helping women move beyond those barriers. Founded last year, the nonprofit organization is the brainchild of Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson and Executive Vice President, Small Business Division Lori Chillingworth. The two saw the need to propel women in Utah’s business and political community, and they approached Jones to lead the effort.

She is a perfect fit for the mission—for more than 35 years, Jones was co-founder and former president of leading market research firm Dan Jones & Associates and served on several community and corporate boards. She also recently wrapped up 14 years in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate, where she was on several committees, including Higher Education, Health and Human Services, Economic Development and more. Joined by Trish Hatch as WLI director, Jones and Hatch are now spearheading the organization’s commitment to “elevate the stature of female leadership in the state of Utah.”

Fostering leaders

Jones says WLI has already met with overwhelming support from Utah companies, chambers, trade associations, educational institutions and others. Questar Corporation, for example, was among the first to accept the ElevateHer Challenge. As a member of the WLI Board, Questar President and CEO Ronald Jibson turned to his team to develop a program that would nurture female leadership within the company.

Jill Carter, Questar’s director of human resources, says the timing couldn’t have been better. She and her team had just started working with internal employee groups to explore ways to advance female employees. Carter had also recently met with Connie Deianni, an employee engagement consultant, who suggested that Questar provide development support to both women and men—to foster a sense of mutual teamwork.

Although the company is typical of most blue collar, labor-intensive businesses—with fewer female than male employees—Carter explains, “It’s not an ‘us vs. them’ environment. We want to promote the best women and men that we can. We truly believe that having a presence of both women and men in leadership and in the workforce improves a variety of different areas of the company.”

When Jibson took on the ElevateHer Challenge, it opened the door for Carter to meet with WLI. “We talked to Pat and Trish about what we were planning, and they validated our mentorship program, and how we were going about doing it,” says Carter.

Questar piloted its program with a small group of mentors and mentees (comprised of a nearly 50/50 balance of women and men) in the fall. Employees from any of Questar’s four entities (utility, pipeline, exploration and corporate) could participate—and they could even cross-over to learn about positions in other parts of the company.

“The program is mentee-driven,” says Carter. “Mentors are there to lend their experience, but for the most part they’re going to work on the goals the mentees have set for themselves. Mentees set up all the meetings and take notes during the sessions. Mentors share their experiences, allow the mentees to shadow what they do, and touch bases with the mentees’ supervisors, so they’re informed about what learning is taking place.”

Early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “It’s been fun to hear the excitement in people’s voices about what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen. It’s giving individuals the opportunity to gain a presence—people who may not have otherwise been noticed if not for this program,” says Carter.

Building on the momentum of the pilot, Questar is launching a full-scale program with 15 mentors and 15 mentees this February. With more than 100 applicants, she says, “It’s great to see how excited everyone is about it. I’ll be walking down the hallway and people will say, ‘Hey do you have a minute? I want to know how I can be a part of the mentor program.’”

Carter is looking forward to the long-term impact the program will have. She cites a Bloomberg study that showed empowering women in the workplace improves financial performance, strengthens the organization’s climate, increases corporate social responsibility and reputation, leverages talent, and enhances innovation and collective intelligence.

Jones concurs, saying, “Visionary business leaders understand that promoting gender diversity is good for ROI, good for a company’s reputation. We have a very low unemployment rate in Utah right now, and you have a lot of organizations vying for qualified workers. When you develop women leaders, it makes other talented, qualified women gravitate toward you—they’re going to think, ‘This is the place where I can have a future, where I can feel comfortable.’”

The challenge

As part of its initiative, WLI launched the ElevateHer Challenge in 2015, which invites businesses to meet a number of objectives:

  • Increase the percentage of women in senior leadership positions
  • Increase the retention rate of women at all levels of the organization
  • Increase the number of women on the organization’s board of directors, extend the influence of women in the industry and encourage women to serve on community and corporate boards
  • Monitor pay by gender and close the identified gaps
  • Establish a leadership development and/or mentoring program for women
  • Urge women to run for public office and give follow-up support
  • Create innovate ways to elevate the stature of women’s leadership in the organization

A balanced approach

With all its emphasis on promoting women in leadership, Jones says, “What makes WLI different is we look at men as allies; we’re incorporating men—half of our board is men. We consider men as advocates for women, and that has been huge for us.”

That balanced approach is gaining momentum not only across the state, but also across the country. Jones says WLI has had interest from groups in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Iowa and Idaho, hoping to develop similar programs. “Our tone is very positive, optimistic,” she says. “We’re simply here to help people understand the opportunities they can have for their organizations if they elevate women within.