Equitable Development: Optimise Talent

Equitable Development: Optimise Talent

by Felicity Menzies

Career development refers to activities and experiences that can help you advance in your career. Professional development activities include formal learning, involving coursework, internships and apprenticeships, executive coaching, and career counselling, or informal learning, involving on-the-job experience, expatriate assignments, attending conferences and seminars, networking, and social learning such as observing peers or role models. Some professional development activities, including mentoring and sponsorship, can be informal or formal. Professional development can also involve activities and experiences outside of the work setting, such as volunteer work, research, writing blogs or other published articles, paid or unpaid directorships, or training courses through independent educational institutions.

What is Equitable Development?

Studies show inequities in career development—some individuals and groups receive more frequent, higher-quality, and appropriately tailored opportunities for professional development compared with others. Equitable development involves strategies that ensure all employees receive the development they need to achieve their full potential. 

Risks to Equitable Career Development

Biased appraisals and feedback

Numerous studies evidence bias in performance management systems(1). Bias in assessment and feedback mean that some groups receive less accurate, less frequent, and less specific guidance in terms of their strengths and development areas. For example, women receive feedback that is vague, sugar-coated, and more likely to be focussed on their communication style. In comparison, men are more likely to receive honest and constructive feedback linked to business outcomes with specific suggestions on how to improve their performance(2).

Unequal access to development opportunities

Unconscious biases and stereotypes can lead to some groups receiving greater access to stretch assignments and other professional development activities compared with other groups. Studies show women, and especially women of colour, are allocated more office housework—administrative or menial tasks that need to be done by someone but do not progress a person’s career, for example, buying the group gift. One study found that women were 29 percent more likely than white men to report doing more office housework than their colleagues(3). A study of academia found that female professors do more committee service work and less research than male professors(4). In contrast, white men are more likely to be offered glamour work—assignments that increase visibility and develop skills needed for advancement to leadership. Eighty percent of all expatriate assignments go to men(6). Because global experience is a prerequisite for today’s C-suite, this statistic has damaging consequences for a woman’s career trajectory and improving gender diversity at leadership. Compared with white women, women of colour report that they get less access to opportunities—they are nine percent less likely to say they’ve received a challenging new assignment and twenty-one percent less likely to think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employee(5).

Unequal access to networks

People form relatively homogenous networks. Homogeneity in our interpersonal connections is linked to unconscious bias. Affinity bias is an automatic preference for people similar to ourselves.

Because the upper ranks of most organisations remain relatively homogenous, organisational members who belong to the dominant group often have greater connections with senior leaders. Research shows white men have more connections with senior leaders in an organisation compared with women and ethnic and racial minorities, and this puts them in an advantageous position(5)(7). Because white men are more likely to have network contacts who have influence and power over their own and other’s careers, they are more likely to benefit from ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ opportunities that are not widely advertised. Industry-wide, about 80 percent of job openings are filled via word-of-mouth(8). White men are also more likely to have influential informal mentors who can connect them to the people, resources, and information required to advance their careers as well as sponsors who actively advocate for their advancement(7). Women and minority group members, on the other hand, can be excluded from informal networks, limiting their ability to form influential connections and access resources required for job performance and advancement. Fifty-one percent of women in senior management report they interact with a company leader at least once a week, compared to 62% of men(5).

One-size-fits-all career development programs

Professional development programs have historically been designed to serve the needs of the dominant group in an organisation. Consequently, most organisations fail to offer tailored learning and development programs that cater to the unique needs of different groups and individuals. Parents and other carers, for example, can benefit from programs for themselves and their managers designed to support them during extended leave and help them to transition back to work on a full-time or flexible working arrangement. The primary caregiving role has traditionally fallen to women, and studies show that 43% of women leave the workplace after having children(9).

Consider also the bottleneck of local talent sitting at middle-management in Western companies operating in Asia. Mobility programs have traditionally been orientated such that emerging leaders from developed markets are transferred to developing markets on stretch assignments that develop new skills and prepare them for global leadership roles. In contrast, local talent in those markets has not been given the same access to opportunities to acquire international experience(10).

Lack of role models

Bain research shows women embark on careers with high expectations and aspirations for advancement, but this confidence evaporates dramatically as they enter mid-career(11). Nearly half of all new female employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 percent still hold that ambition. In contrast, 34 percent of men begin their careers with aspirations that they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience. The marked drop in female aspiration is matched by a fall in professional confidence, whereas men experience a much smaller fall in confidence over the same period.  Exploring the causes behind the decline in professional confidence and ambition of women, Bain found that the shortage of women in upper management to serve as role models hampered progress toward gender parity. Female role models inspire women and are a source of resilience.

Consequences of Inequitable Development 

Homogenous leadership 

Unless an employer focusses on levelling the playing field for development, the traditionally dominant group benefit from more influential networks; greater access to mentors, sponsors and role models; better access to information and resources required to advance their career; more frequent opportunities to develop their skills; and programs that are more likely to meet their specific development needs. In those contexts, come promotion, members of the dominant group tick more boxes in terms of readiness for advancement.

Weak attraction and retention of diverse talent

Bias in career development not only hampers an organisations efforts to diversify its leadership teams, but it also damages an organisation’s ability to attract and retain diverse talent across rank. In a global study by PwC, female career starters and female millennials identified opportunities for career development as the most attractive employer trait, as did women overall in Brazil, China, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, and the UAE. The report also found that women who had recently changed employers said a lack of opportunities for career progression was the top reason they left their former employer (35%)(12). Other studies show that women with influential mentors are more likely to feel committed to their organisation and are less likely to leave(13). It is well established that women drop out of the corporate pipeline at higher rates than men, and the statistics for women of colour are even worse. Not only does weaker retention of diverse talent damage the diversity of the leadership pipeline, but high employee turnover is also a significant cost to the employer. 

Workforce under-performance 

Organisations that do not invest in developing all of their employees to their full potential fail to optimise their return on human capital.

Solutions for Equitable Development

Formal career planning

Career planning refers to the active consideration of an individual’s values, goals, interests, and personal and professional aspirations to set career goals and career development opportunities that support their achievement. Formal career planning with tailored professional development pathways are instrumental in retaining high potential diverse talent and advancing them to leadership(14). Career planning can help women and minorities to overcome obstacles to advancement by enhancing self-awareness regarding appropriate career choices and by assisting them to identify and leverage development tools for long-term personal and professional growth. Insights gained from engaging in career planning with women and minority employees can also help organisations identify challenges unique to those groups and to develop and implement tailored professional development programs

Organisations can support women and minorities in career planning by offering self-assessment tools, training and development opportunities, and insights into career paths and potential advancement opportunities within the organisation, for example, access to mentors and sponsors, and expatriate or other stretch assignments.

Fair appraisal and feedback

Bias in performance appraisal and feedback such as subjective and inaccurate assessments or vague and unactionable suggestions for improving performance limit the ability of women and minority groups as well as their managers to accurately identify professional strengths and development areas and to map those to activities and experiences that will strengthen and develop the skills and capabilities needed for progression. 

Strategies for fair performance appraisal include unconscious bias training, objective, specific and transparent evaluation criteria, well-defined and narrow rating scales, assessing an individual’s performance over time, incorporating a diverse panel of assessors, more frequent feedback, and tracking ratings for bias. Refer to our guidelines on fair appraisal for more information(15).

Effective professional networks

To emerge as a leader, who you know matters as much or more than what you know. Relationships are critical to our ability to accomplish our goals. Through our connections with others, we attain the support, resources, and feedback that we need for performance and growth. Studies confirm this—individuals with quality networks are more likely to find a job, be promoted, earn a higher salary, and achieve high levels of performance in their current role(16)(17).

Initiatives that an employer can undertake to support the development of networks for women and minorities include formal training in networking, sponsoring internal networking groups such as employee affinity groups or other professional networking groups, and promoting and sponsoring networking opportunities that connect their employees with individuals outside of the organisation.

Targeted development programs

Employers can support diverse talent in achieving their full potential through a variety of targeted professional development programs, including tailored coursework, individualised professional development pathways, mentoring, and sponsorship. Examples include return-to-work programs, global assignments, horizontal rotations, temporary assignments to acting roles in senior staff absences, and internships for senior or entry-level diverse talent.

Access to role models

Studies on the impact of role models support the notion, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ In 2013, scientists asked 149 students from a Swiss university (81 women, 68 men) to give a persuasive political speech against increasing student fees, within the context of a virtual reality program that put them in front of an audience of six men and six women(18). For some participants, the back wall of the virtual room featured a hanging picture of Hillary Clinton. For others, it showed a portrait of Bill Clinton or Angela Merkel, and for some, the wall remained blank. The researchers timed and videotaped the speech, then asked the students to evaluate their performance. A separate group of people unaware of the experimental conditions watched the speeches and rated them based on fluency and body language.

Both the people watching the speeches and those giving them perceived longer speeches as being more positive. When there was no role model in view, men spoke longer than women. The same held for speaking under the withering gaze of Big Bill. Consequently, when there was no model, men’s speeches were rated more highly than women’s.

Female role models eliminated the gender gap, however. Women gave longer speeches and evaluated themselves more positively when they were primed with images of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel compared with when they saw Bill Clinton or weren’t primed at all. The outside observers also rated their speeches higher.

Role models not only boost performance, but they also improve attraction and retention. Sixty-seven percent of women say positive role models are important when deciding to accept a position with an employer, rising to 76% for female career starters(12).

Similarly, numerous studies on the impact of race-congruent role models demonstrate positive outcomes for performance, confidence, self-esteem, engagement, and motivation for ethnic and racial minorities(19)(20).


Mentoring involves the offering of advice, introductions, information, and guidance by a person with useful experience, connections, skills or expertise (mentors) for another individual’s personal and professional development (mentees). Mentors act as trusted advisers to the mentee who take responsibility for their professional development.

Benefits that flow to mentees from mentoring include greater insight and understanding into one’s own and other’s perceptions of their value, abilities, and potential, and improved goal clarity and accountability through the articulation of the mentee’s ambitions and career aspirations. Other benefits include encouraging personal accountability for career development, the acquisition of skills for nurturing and harnessing professional networks, and improved performance through the development of leadership competencies.

Research confirms that mentoring supports career progression. In a study by the Wharton School of Business, 25 percent of employees in a test group who took part in the company’s mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared with just five percent of non-participants. Mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in the program(21). Similarly, Catalyst found that MBA graduates who had a mentor before starting their first post-MBA job received higher compensation and a higher-level position(22).

Because women and minority groups have fewer informal mentors than men, the benefits that flow from formal mentoring programs for the career development and advancement of those groups are particularly potent. Most studies have shown that women with mentors, for example, are more likely to achieve career success than those without(23). Sixty-seven percent of women rate mentorship as highly important in career advancement(24).

Other studies show that formal mentoring programs make companies’ leadership significantly more diverse—on average, boosting the representation of women and ethnic minorities by 9% to 24%(25). Solving the diversity problem through mentoring, however, needs time. Positions need to open, or organisations need to expand before they can fill critical roles with diverse talent. Researchers say it takes about three to four years on average before an organisation will see a significant difference in diversity from mentoring programs(26).

As well as developing diverse talent to advance to leadership, formal mentoring programs for women and minorities support the retention and engagement of diverse talent. Formal mentoring is one of the best methods of communicating to diverse emerging leaders that you value their contribution and will support them in their career aspirations. Seventy-eight percent of mentees report that mentoring made them feel more engaged(27). Millennials intending to stay with their organisation for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68 percent) than not (32 percent)(28).

As well as having a direct positive impact on the career development and engagement of diverse talent, diversity mentoring is successful as a diversity and inclusion initiative because, unlike unconscious bias training, it directly develops meaningful and productive relationships across cultural and social groups. Studies show that positive contact between members of different groups reduces social categorisations and, in turn, stereotypes and prejudice(29). Mentoring also helps to disrupt leader blindspots regarding the barriers that hold people back(30). Increased awareness of the obstacles facing diverse talent in an organisation is fundamental to building inclusive leadership capability. Formal mentoring programs are particularly important for engaging male leaders in mentoring women and help to counter an increased reluctance of men to voluntarily mentor women for fear of saying or doing something improper in the wake of #MeToo(31).

Although the benefits of mentoring have traditionally been perceived to flow primarily to mentees, mentors also benefit from mentoring. Benefits that flow to the mentor include reciprocal learning and deriving personal satisfaction from helping another person achieve their potential(7)(30).


While a mentor gives career support and advice and makes valuable introductions, a sponsor uses their influence in an organisation to advocate for the development and advancement of their protégés actively. Sponsors use their power and position in organisations to gain more challenging and high-visibility projects, promotions, pay raises, and influential network connections for their protégés. Whereas mentoring relationships occur when the mentor-mentee dyad is in the same room, sponsors actively champion and advocate for their protégés regarding development and promotion opportunities when their protégés are not in the room. Whereas a mentor talks to you, a sponsor talks about you.

The sponsorship relationship involves a mutual arrangement whereby, in return for the sponsor’s advocacy, which involves professional and reputational risk—the protégé supports the sponsor’s career goals by displaying consistently high performance and organisational commitment and loyalty.

Sponsorship is more effective than mentoring in promoting career advancement because it directly opens doors to opportunities. This can be particularly powerful for traditionally underrepresented talent who face barriers to professional development and weaker visibility that hamper advancement in organisations(32)(33). Catalyst reports that men’s mentors are more senior, more influential, and have access to a broader network than women’s mentors. In other words, men’s mentors are often really sponsors, and that is a critical difference(34). When women have sponsors, women are just as likely as men to be promoted(34). Women with sponsors are 27 percent more likely than those without sponsors to seek a raise and 22 percent more likely to seek ‘stretch assignments’ that build their leadership experience(35). Sponsorship can improve the chances of stretch assignments, promotions, and pay raises by up to 30 percent.

Sponsorship is also a retention tool. Seventy percent of sponsored men and 68 percent of sponsored women report satisfaction with their pace of professional progress, while only 57 percent of their unsponsored peers report the same(25). The effect of sponsorship for retention is even more pronounced for women with children—85 percent of mothers (employed full-time) who have sponsors stay in the game, compared to only 58 percent of those going it alone(7).

Similar to mentoring, the benefits of sponsorship flow two-ways. Sponsors benefit from growing reputational capital when they champion high performing employees. White male leaders with protégés are 11 percent more satisfied with their rate of advancement than leaders who do not sponsor high-potential talent. For leader sponsors of colour, the returns from sponsorship are even higher—24 percent report greater satisfaction with their career progress(35).

Succession planning

Succession planning is a strategic process of building a leadership pipeline. It involves forecasting an organisation’s future senior leadership needs, identifying and developing candidates who have the potential to be future leaders, and selecting individuals from among a pool of qualified candidates for executive roles. 

Succession plans linked to diversity and inclusion goals can help organisations manage bias by focussing on the identification and development of high-performing diverse talent—supporting increased leadership diversity over time(36).

Monitor development opportunities

To address disparities in the assignment of career development opportunities, employers must hold managers accountable for tracking the allocation of stretch assignments and other formal and informal development opportunities and ensuring career development opportunities are fairly assigned. 

Managers should invest time in understanding what micro-activities are performed by each member of their team and for how long. For example, are there individuals who spend more time than others setting up conference calls, scheduling meetings, organising group gifts, taking the lunch orders? When the data collected from monitoring ‘who does what’ shows that administrative tasks are not shared equally across the team, managers must actively manage the allocation of office-housework tasks rather than seeking volunteers. Managers should hold every team member to account regarding their performance of administrative tasks.

For stretch assignments, managers must consider all eligible employees, not just the ones who come to mind first or who put themselves forward. Managers should rotate development opportunities across qualified candidates. For example, rotating the role of chair for the weekly meeting or rotating the responsibility for acting in a managerial position. When there are members of a workgroup who are not eligible for a development opportunity, managers should focus on how they can help their employees to formally or informally develop the skills they need to close capability gaps and prepare them for the next opportunity. Alternatively, managers can break down stretch opportunities into smaller opportunities and assign tasks across the team according to skill level so that everyone has a chance to participate and to strengthen or develop new skills.

As with all diversity and inclusion initiatives, the career development of women and minorities should be tracked. Where patterns indicate that some groups are being left behind in terms of stretch or glamour assignments, formal coursework, mentoring and sponsorship, or other development opportunities, employers should take active measures to correct the gap.

Developing inclusive leadership capability

Inclusive leadership training assists leaders in understanding their implicit assumptions and prejudgments. Leaders reflect on how their experience might be different from individuals with backgrounds different from their own and workshop solutions for empowering diverse talent, for example, by acting as mentors or sponsors, actively seeking to improve objectivity in assessment and moderation, providing constructive and timely feedback, formalising career plans, visibly advocating for workforce diversity, acting as an upstander, fostering inclusive work settings, and running inclusive meetings. 


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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.