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Untapped potential

by Michelle Redfern

Michelle Redfern was in her early 20s when she stepped into her first leadership role. What followed was successive leadership positions that make up a career dedicated to learning and evolving as a leader.

What Michelle lacked, particularly throughout the early years of her journey, was female role models she could look up to while she climbed the leadership ladder. With her decades of experience as a leader and diversity, equity and inclusion expert, Michelle now wants to be that role model she was looking for. Through her new book, The Leadership Compass, Michelle is providing a roadmap for women at all stages of their career to help them navigate the world of business leadership.

More than that, Michelle is motivated to help organisations fix the systems that perpetuate the gender pay gap. “We know that when women reach their full potential, so do their families, organisations and society,” she explains. 

Michelle shares her insights on learning and leading on closing the gender gap.

The advancing women formula

According to Michelle, BQ + EQ + SQ is the advancing women formula. More than this, she says “leaders who demonstrate these three skill sets are going to be the most sought after leaders in the 21st century organisation.”

  • Business Intelligence (BQ): Leaders with high business intelligence get results. They have strong business, strategic and financial acumen. They know how to lead for outcomes and contribute to the strategic and financial goals of the organisation. 
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Leaders with high emotional intelligence are crystal clear about how they show up and know the impact of their behaviours and actions. They have clarity about who they’re in service of and consistently deliver positive outcomes for people and organisations. 
  • Social Intelligence (SQ): Leaders with high social intelligence draw on their BQ and EQ skills, along with confidence, credibility and courage to develop and leverage strategic relationships. This results in a very powerful professional brand.

“The missing link for women is that they haven’t been given enough career advice that focuses on developing and demonstrating business intelligence,” explains Michelle.

When systems prevent women from having access to the conversations and opportunities that help them to develop their skills, their progress stalls. It’s the gender gap in action.

Women aren’t the problem

Michelle is very clear that women aren’t the problem. The solution isn’t to fix women but rather to fix the systems – both informal and formal – in which we all operate.

Michelle argues that from the outset of their careers, men have more access to mentoring. This is how they learn the business of business. And it happens in environments that women have traditionally been locked out of.

“75% of the unpaid work in the world – a large part of which is caring responsibilities – is done by women,” she says. “Like it or not, business is done during the 5am bike ride, the pub after work or in the box at the football on the weekend.”

The solution? It’s twofold. First, Michelle encourages managers and leaders to think about who is included and who is excluded from these environments. Are they building environments where women have the same opportunities as their male peers to develop relationships based on respect and trust?

For women, Michelle’s advice is to get really good at strategic networking.

“You’ve got to work hard here,” she adds. “If you’re not getting what you need, that is learning the business of business from your manager, find a strategic mentor who can teach you. It might be an executive in your organisation who has a skill set that you need to develop. Approach them and ask them to mentor you. Be really targeted about what you need to learn from them and make sure they know that.”

Beyond networking, Michelle advocates for putting your hand up for every opportunity to get exposure to the people, behaviour and practices that you’ll need to advance.

Michelle Redfern, author of The Leadership Compass

Deep diving for data

For executives who are really serious about closing the gender pay gap, Michelle encourages them to get closer to what’s happening on the ground in their organisation. And not just through lag indicators such as gender pay gap data.

“Your gender pay gap report will contain a lot of useful information,” she says. “But it’s about past performance. Leaders need to start paying attention to the lived experience of women across the organisation. This happens through conversations. Through listening to the answers and taking action.”

That qualitative data can then be used to make meaningful tactical and system change. Otherwise, she argues, decisions are made based on assumptions about what it takes to create and sustain a successful workplace for women. These assumptions waste time and resources, leading to zero progress. 

“This can often mean confronting some brutal truths about the opportunities – or lack thereof – for women in your organisation,” she adds. “But this is what needs to happen to show women that you’re serious about making a workplace that works for them.”

The merit myth

“A large contributing factor to the gender pay gap is the sheer fact there are more men in higher paying leadership roles than there are women. This is compounded by women also making up a large proportion of lower paying support roles, such as in HR and admin. Then there are the ‘merit-based’ decisions about who gets the opportunities.”

Solving the gender pay gap is complicated by the unique culture of every organisation. There’s no one way to make decisions, or specifically decisions around talent that tend to impact the pay gap. However, Michelle says that the companies doing it well do have one thing in common. They’re questioning the merit myth.

“We’ve heard the line about only recruiting the best person for the job,” she explains. “So why does the best person most often happen to a middle-aged straight white man? The organisations doing this really well understand the inherent biases that play into ‘meritorious appointments’. They’re interrogating the myth that merit is the answer.”

The alternative to merit-based appointments isn’t a single solution. Michelle says there are four key things organisations can do to ditch the merit myth.

  1. Identify talented women in your organisation and provide opportunities for them to reach their full potential. Moving around the organisation to work in different departments helps to build critical business intelligence skills.
  2. Adopt blind CVs during the recruitment process by removing gender, age and ethnicity. This helps to interrupt bias in the early stage of the application process to really look at how qualified a person is for a role.
  3. Have diverse interview panels that are gender, age and culturally balanced. Bring in people from across the business with a range of different identities to give candidates a really good interview experience.
  4. Look for culture adds, not culture fits. Cultures should grow and evolve, which relies on new ideas from different people.

“There has been tremendous progress in my lifetime to level the playing field for women at work,” she adds. “Sure, we’re not there yet. But I know that when leaders of all genders, at all career stages, get serious about making workplaces work for women, then all of us win.” 

About the author

Michelle Redfern is an award-winning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategist. Her expertise lies in helping organisations in the business and sports industries develop and implement effective DEI strategies. Additionally, she works directly with women leaders to support their career advancement. Michelle is the author of The Leadership Compass: The ultimate guide for women leaders to reach their full potential, as well as the founder of Advancing Women in Business and Sport and co-founder of the multi-platform resource – Lead to Soar.


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