3 Reasons Diversity Initiatives Fail to Shift the Dial on Gender Balance

Advances in achieving gender balance in the corporate space are slow, at best.  Despite the deafening cries for progress towards gender parity, progress is, indeed, evading us.  The latest gender pay gap statistics in the UK prove the point, with the largest pay gap reported in the construction sector at 25%, followed by finance and insurance sector at 22% and education at 20%.   The World Economic Forum predicts it will take the world another 217 years to reach parity, and many other reports show that, while we appear to be inching closer to a more diverse and inclusive world, progress is, well, patchy and sometimes questionable.

I have to ask myself the question why?  After all, in my conversations with clients and other companies, it seems diversity and inclusion is an important part of the business agenda, and gender balance even more so.   Most have already spent copious resources on various initiatives that intend to support and advance women - and, more broadly, diversity - within the organisation.  And yet, few would claim genuine parity at all levels.

If you ask me, part of the problem is the belief that we’re doing all the right things whereas the truth is that most of the current initiatives fail to shift the dial on diversity.

Here are my 3 reasons for it:

All female leadership and other initiatives

The intentions behind programmes that support the advancement of women in the organisation are great, but there are a number of problems with this approach: (i) when programmes cater to women only, the overarching message the company is sending to its women is that there is something wrong with them and that it is trying to ‘fix’ them.  This is particularly true of leadership programmes which intimate that women need more development than men to become leaders; (ii) even successful female-only initiatives tend to backfire because, to the extent they succeed to motivate and engage women, by the time women go back to their unchanged work environment, frustration starts to set in as they continue to perform in an environment that fails to recognise the value of their authentic contribution; and (iii) initiatives that are aimed at a specific segment of the population tend to be divisive and fail to attract the requisite amount of support and inclusion to harness lasting progress.

Appointing a female head to ‘tackle the problem’

In many cases, executive teams are genuine about their desire to advance women.  But they don’t recognise it as a central business priority and look at it as a project to be managed.  Having identified it as an issue, they tend to look for the right person to address it which, in many cases, happens to be the one woman on the executive team.  I have heard this story so many times.

These women, or other senior women in the organisation, are anointed as Head of People, or Gender Diversity Sponsor or similar, and are expected to single-handedly ‘solve the issue’.  If they’re lucky, the board will agree to authorise resources to support the position in the form of additional help and/or budget. Yet in most cases, all the resources are going to be insufficient because the ‘problem’ cannot be solved by one or few individuals, and certainly not this particular ‘problem’ (because it’s not so much a problem but an unexplored opportunity).

Parachuting women into senior roles

In many cases, gender imbalance exists primarily at the very top.  Many companies tackle the issue by bringing in lateral hires as they don’t appear to have their own senior female pipeline to address the disparity.  Sadly, this is one of the worst solutions to this issue.  Having spoken to a number of corporates who have taken such measures it becomes clear very quickly that there is no substitute for ‘growing your own’.  Attracting senior women from elsewhere is, at best, a temporary solution.  These freshly-hired women – like the the women who have been at the company for years – will be exposed to the very same culture that failed to produce the senior pipeline in the first instance.  As a result, the new senior female leaders are likely to become disenchanted with their roles as they come to realise that they are not hired for their expertise and contribution but, instead (to put it bluntly), to tick a box.   Even if they do succeed in making a contribution to the company that is genuinely valued, companies have to carefully guard these women from being hired away by others with a similar agenda.  The reality is that there are not that many senior women out there who seem to satisfy the existing requirements for board or senior level hires (although, of course, many more women can indeed to the job) so, unless companies develop their own female leadership pipeline, they stand to lose those recent hires to others that have a similar approach to gender balance.

These are but a few reasons current initiatives fail to advance gender balance at work, and there are a number of others.  If you would like to explore this topic further, email us for a longer version of this post.

That was the month that was… June 2018

by Rebecca Dalton

The government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review issued its interim report on gender balance with a list of some of the reasons given for not appointing women to FTSE company boards.

Here are some of them:

  • “all the 'good' women have already been snapped up"
  • “our annual report runs to 165 pages. Most women are too weak to carry it to the boardroom”
  • “we have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else's turn"
  • “most women don't want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board"
  • “this is a dynamic 24/7 company. When the Harvey Nics shoe sale is on, we lose our female workforce for days on end. We can’t risk share prices collapsing just because it’s 30% off on the Jimmy Choo’s.”

* two of these are not real excuses

Meanwhile, improving diversity at airlines was a big theme at the International Air Transport Associations’ annual conference in Sydney. Just the right forum for Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker to treat us to his view that an airline has to be led by a man ‘because it’s a very challenging position.’ Cue a slightly stunned pause and audible gasps. After which his audience at the press conference – and social media worldwide – decided laughter was the best medicine. Allowing Mr Baker to claim it was a joke all along.

Yes, of course it was dear.

Mr Baker has form in this area, once describing female air stewards on other airlines as ‘grandmothers’ and boasting that the average age at Qatar was 26.

Furiously rowing back on his cracking ‘joke’ he issued a statement that ‘Qatar Airways firmly believes in gender equality and… it would be my pleasure if I could help develop a female candidate to be the next CEO of Qatar Airways.’

Hopefully, that position may become available quicker than you think, grandad.

Your company’s Inclusion Score: Comparing Lyndales’ culture to our Inclusion Criteria

At Voice At The Table, we’ve been working on developing inclusive cultures for some time now: identifying the starting point, describing the look and feel of an inclusive workplace, and supporting our clients in designing and developing their own inclusive and diverse teams.

In this new series of posts, we will be scoring organisations on their attitude to diversity and inclusion.  Assessing companies’ culture relative to our own Inclusion Criteria, we give them an Inclusion Mark, gauging where they are on the journey towards a strong inclusive culture that nurtures diverse thinking and garners its many benefits.

Our 7 Inclusion Marks describe the various stages of that journey:

  • Don’t Get It! – organisation doesn’t see any benefit from Diversity & Inclusion
  • Window Dressing – organisation understands the need to be seen as valuing D&I
  • Let’s Fix It! – organisation sees lack of diversity as a problem.
  • Seeing The Opportunity – organisation understands the strategic importance of D&I
  • Building the Foundation – organisation is actively building a foundation for D&I
  • Growing & Nurturing – organisation is starting to reap the benefits of D&I and continues to embed them into the business
  • Immersed & Fully Benefiting - organisation has established a successful inclusive culture that benefits from the full value of its diverse workforce

This time we look at Lyndales Solicitors, a boutique firm.  With a practice that ranges from civil litigation to family law to commercial property to private clients to company commercial, this firm punches above its weight.

But how well does it fair in diversity and inclusion terms?

The first thing one notices when looking at the team of solicitors at Lyndales is how diverse it is.  The Lyndales team is small and perfectly formed, gender-balanced at 50-50, with representatives of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Granted, at partner level the firm is striving towards diversity (with only 1 of 5 partners being a woman), but if we judge by appearance only, it would seem the firm is keen to address this nuance. And, while the team of lawyers is relatively small, it also spans a number of generations (the youngest member being in their 20s whereas the oldest in his late 60s), adding to the mix of views, experiences and opinions of the group.

Having interviewed one of their senior solicitors, Noga Kogman, I quickly reached the conclusion that the firm is aware of the benefits of diversity and inclusion as a business proposition and is shaping its work environment to attract and retain a diverse mix of people.

How do Lyndales measure up to our Inclusion Criteria?

  1. Working Culture

Noga moved to London from Israel and, as a mother of a young child who is ambitious and career-minded, Noga wanted to work at a firm that can offer her an intellectually-stimulating role and also let her be a mother on her own terms.  Lyndales offered her just that.  Working a full 5-day week, Noga usually works from home once a week and on another day leaves the office at 4pm to pick up her son.  Noga is also free to make other arrangements needed to accommodate her role as a parent and a commercial transaction lawyer.   Noga doesn’t have to hide that she’s leaving to look after her son and doesn’t feel judged because of it.  She feels fully respected and valued by all her colleagues and is therefore able to be fully herself in the office.

In fact, one third of the lawyers work from home one day a week (including a male member of the team) and one of the solicitors also works a shorter week in addition to one of her work days being from home.  In other words, the firm accommodates agile working for everyone who wants it.

Noga describes the culture at Lyndales as healthy and open-minded.   The partners trust their colleagues to be professionals and don’t second-guess how or where they get the job done.  Performance is measured by output and everyone’s targets and progress is openly discussed at team meetings.  People are engaged, committed and happy to be at work – a testament to a tolerant, respecting culture.

Noga feels that there is a genuine interest in diversity at the firm, beyond it being a requirement imposed by the SRA.  The firm has an open-minded approach to candidates and views CVs without regard to a person’s background, name or gender.  The firm is genuinely interested in attracting people from various backgrounds (reflected in the composition of the legal team).

Interviews are conducted by a wide group of people to ensure a lack of bias and a good personality fit with all.  It is therefore not uncommon that lateral hires come from bigger City firms to find a home that respects their varied backgrounds and values their technical skills.

When asked about the firm’s leadership style, Noga explained that the partners are inclusive and considerate.  Noga and her colleagues are routinely engaged in most decisions that affect them directly, from office moves to new hires.  Partners consult with their colleagues regularly and listen and act on feedback.   Partners can be described as balanced in their attitude, open-minded and professional and the tone for the firm’s culture and business is set by its managing partner.

  1. Retention, Development and Promotion

In terms of retention, Lyndales story is strong.  Most lawyers stay for a long time, with hardly any turn-over of legal staff.  The two longest serving partners are the founders, each with 40 years under his respective belt. The firm recently expanded with 3 lateral hires and a newly-qualified solicitor who trained with the firm.  The female partner at the firm returned from maternity leave to work flexibly, working 4 days per week, one of which is from home.

Lyndales do not offer special arrangements for parenting, such as maternity coaching or specific policies around maternity, although one might argue that, with an open attitude towards accommodating most flexible working requests and a friendly open-minded environment, such support services aren’t strictly necessary.  The firm’s maternity leave is comparable to that of any bigger firm and it encourages fathers to play their role in child care.

The firm encourages lawyers to maintain their personal development, supporting their individual training initiatives.  As a small firm, it doesn’t have a central training department yet encourages each person to think about their own growth.

As with most other law firms, the path to equity partnership isn’t entirely transparent, but according to Noga, the partners are aware of this and are keen to address it.  The managing partner has taken it upon himself to ensure the partnership track is transparent and is actively working on making it so.

  1. Diversity as a Market Force

The drive for a diverse and inclusive culture in this case is not coming from the outside world.  While it would be fair to say that clients do think about diversity and prefer to work with diverse and able teams (and, as a result, benefit from their more creative and insightful solutions), in the case of Lyndales the firm culture is naturally inclusive and is designed to give lawyers independence, responsibility and accountability.  As a result, the firm benefits from the diversity of its people by allowing them to bring their whole selves to work and tap into their diverse backgrounds and experiences.

  1. External Evidence of Commitment

In terms of the gender pay gap, the firm is too small to have to report on it, but internal sources suggest that there is a gender pay gap at the firm (currently not quantified), as a function of the fact that, at partnership level, there are more men than women.

The firm is not a signatory to any diversity charters (including the legal diversity and inclusion charter) and is too small to need Employee Resource Groups or networks.

This short overview of the firm’s culture against our criteria leads us to award Lyndales Solicitors an Inclusion Mark of Growing and Nurturing their existing inclusive and diverse culture.  This puts the firm in a prominent position in the legal industry, proving that D&I is not something that pertains only to bigger organisations.  As a diverse and inclusive culture is something that can be nurtured from the outset, the size of the business doesn’t matter. Small businesses like Lyndales stand to benefit from an inclusive environment as much as (if not more than) any bigger organisation that puts D&I front and centre to its growth strategy. Congratulations, Lyndales! You’ve accomplished a remarkable feat without trying too hard!

If you would like us to review your organisation’s diversity and Inclusion Mark, please email info@voiceatthetable.com

 

How Meritocracy Failed Me and How You Can Outsmart it!

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When I first embarked on my career path, I whole-heartedly believed that the only obstacles in my path would be my own capabilities and efforts.   And for a while, that is how it was.  My career progressed steadily and predictably, navigated solely by my own will.  Until about 15, 16 years into it, when I reached and got stuck in what is endearingly referred to as the ‘marzipan layer’ – that sweet, sticky time in your career life when you feel you’ve achieved a respectable level of seniority and find it quite difficult to progress beyond it.

Having worked in more or less the same environment my entire life, all of a sudden, I realised that I didn’t appear to fit the mould of those in the layers above me and that they – the most senior management team - didn’t fully appreciate all I had to contribute.  And then I noticed one other phenomenon:  other senior women  have started leaving the organisation.

In an attempt to understand what was going on, I embarked on self-awareness and self-development training, naturally assuming there was something wrong with me.  I read, researched, and spoke to other women.  Once I was satisfied that my experience was not unique to me, I came to the conclusion that I was in a meritocratic system that was biased against me, a senior woman.

In my research, I learned that, when selecting between men and women with the same qualifications, companies that adhere to a ‘meritocracy’ were more likely to select and progress men over women.

I was startled.   My entire career was based on the premise that I could achieve as much as wanted.   In fact, the whole point of merit-based systems is that they are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women.

That’s where I was wrong.

The premise of a meritocracy is that men and women share the same attributes, and that assessment criteria apply equally to men and women.

But what about that unconscious gender bias?

Consider the following research published by the Harvard Business Review in 2010* regarding gender bias in the workplace:

  • Married women with children are perceived as less flexible, less available, less committed and, hence, not leadership material.
  • Senior unmarried women are seen as “different” or even threatening and are, therefore, less likely to be supported.
  • Pregnant women are perceived as less authoritative and more irrational, irrespective of how they actually perform.

These biases skew the perception of competence towards those candidates who display the same attributes as those in similar positions, and 'merit' goes out the window.

A useful illustration of this is the story of the New York Philharmonic.  This orchestra (not unlike many others) was plagued by a low representation of female musicians within its orchestra body.  The management of the Philharmonic believed that the reason for this was the fact that male musicians preferred the style of music that the NY Philharmonic was known for.  Nonetheless, the orchestra decided to to put its theory to the test by holding blind auditions, i.e. auditions where the gender of the musician was unknown to the recruitment panel.

Will it surprise you to hear that, based on blind auditions alone, the number of female new hires in the orchestra body went from 10% to 45%?

The blind auditions showed that, in fact, it was a hidden bias towards male musicians that influenced the auditions.  Once the bias was “turned off” by not seeing the musician, gender was discounted as part of the equation and women joined the ranks with just as much “merit” as men.

What is the point I’m trying to make? Simply: women cannot rely on ‘merit’ to do them justice when it comes to career progression.

So what should we do?   I'm a big advocate of embracing the differences that we bring to our organisations and marketing ourselves on the basis of those differences.

Easier said than done, you say?  Consider the following:

Recent studies show that employees and stakeholders across the world prefer leaders that showcase the following traits: trustworthy, adaptable, supportive, selfless, empathetic, conscientious, intuitive, and social.

Research also shows that:

'the historical "great leader" that is macho, infallible, omnipotent, know-­it­all leader has been replaced by a new type of leader, a servant leader who exists to make others a lot better.'**

So, ask yourself:  what can I do for my organisation that is not already being done at the top?  Do I have any of those other people skills that the current management team doesn't?

And if the answer to this question includes a number of feminine attributes that aren’t represented in the existing decision making bodies, then by all means DO use them as the added qualifier for that next career step!

So to summarise:

DON’T

  • rely on merit;
  • compare yourself to those currently ahead of you; and
  • hide the experiences/qualities that make you different from them.

DO

  • point out the differences that you will bring to decision making bodies;
  • talk about how leadership is changing and how you have the necessary skills for future challenges and opportunities; and
  • promote yourself on potential to take your company into the future.

 

* What holds back women? by Charu Sabnavis, LiveMINT, 30 August 2015

** Why Organizations Thrive With Feminine Leadership, Huff Post The Third Metric, 17 September 2015

Asking for help – do we really have to?

prickly pear flowerThe first time I realised that I rarely reached out to anyone to help me progress my career ambitions was  when I heard a speaker at a conference say that women like to be supported in their endeavours.   I realised then that the reason that some of my own initiatives never took off was because I didn’t have the support – and therefore lacked the confidence – to execute them.

The second time was a more potent lesson.  When I received some unpleasant feedback from my line manager, which I found unfair and unsubstantiated, I was lucky to have been offered support.  I was on a management course, a part of which entailed receiving feedback from colleagues and supervisors.  Although my boss’ comments were entirely out of sync with the rest of the feedback, I took them to heart and felt completely defeated.  But when an executive coach (who was privy to the comments) asked me whether I wanted to talk to her about it, it changed my professional path.  Hearing another person’s objective perspective on my judgmental perception of the comments made me see them in a more neutral – fair – light.  Moreover, while I was busy feeling sorry for myself, I failed to see the opportunities this situation would present, if only I could “remove” my personal feelings and insecurities from the situation and approach it in a pragmatic and professional manner.  And that was the gift that the leadership coach gave me on that fateful seminar.

And that was also when I realised that many of the most successful people in the world have relied on the support and assistance of a coach, a mentor, or a sponsor.   Once I became more sensitive to the subject, I started listening out for it and realised that it is now widely recognised that many of today’s most successful and resourceful people acknowledge the fact that they cannot manage the pressures of today’s demands on their own and use the services of a coach to take their lives, careers, or businesses to the next level, to improve and to grow.

Here are some famous examples:

Warren Buffet was mentored by Ben Graham, his teacher at Columbia University.  Ben Graham went on to own the big insurance company Geico, which Warren Buffet later acquired.

Warren Buffet also mentored Bill Gates.

Other famous mentoring examples (as a quick Google search reveals) include:

  • Vivek Paul (President and CEO, Wipro Technologies) mentored by John Donahoe (President of eBay);
  • Edward Ettin (Federal Reserve Board) mentor to Sherry Cooper (Bank of Montreal Economist);
  • Jimmy Ferraro (found of Supervalu) mentor to William McEwan (supermarket guru);
  • Gerald Levin (former CEO AOL Time-Warner) mentor to Richard Parsons (CEO AOL Time-Warner);
  • David Shaw (Chairman, DE Shaw Co) mentor to Jeff Bezos (CEO Amazon.com);

and the list goes on and on.  So one of the secrets of successful people who seems to have it all is that they don’t do it on their own.

This is also true for women.  Suzanne  Doyle-Morris author of  “Beyond the Boys’ Club, says "I do not know a successful woman who has not had some type of mentoring relationship in her past."   Suzanne describes a mentor as “someone more senior than them [the mentee] professionally, who can help guide the way and give career advice”.

Leah Williams, head of communications for the Women’s Resource Centre says “There are so many wise and successful women out there and it’s vital that we make the most of their expertise. That one-on-one attention can help women so much, particularly if they lack confidence to take on leadership roles or have faced discouragement from other colleagues or society at large.”

These women recognise that successful women have relied on the benefits of a mentor or a coach.   And although we all know what the benefits of mentoring and coaching could be, they warrant repeating.  So here’s a list of some of them:

  •  Help us past a cross-roads – coaching often comes in handiest when we are “stuck”; when we can no longer identify what our next steps should be.  Our coach or mentor is then able to focus our thoughts and guide us towards the next step.
  • Increased self-confidence – as part of the growing process to achieving goals, we learn to tune into who we are, what we wish for and the qualities and strengths we have that will help us achieve our goals. This builds confidence in ourselves and in our ability to succeed.
  • Increased emotional intelligence – the coaching/mentoring process makes us look at and assess our lives and innermost thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This builds emotional intelligence, contributing towards success in life generally. By objectively understanding, assessing and mastering our emotions we are able to create success in our life.
  • Energised to do more – when coached or mentored, we tend to gain a beneficial perspective or new direction, empowering us to take action, often beyond what we might have considered possible.  Being continuously focused on and guided towards a goal creates a stronger desire to get there.
  • Enhanced creativity and resourcefulness –  coaching/mentoring enhances our field of vision, inspiring creativity and resourcefulness. We are be stretched to make better use of resources available that may currently only be marginally used or ignored all together.
  • Develop communications skills - Aside from developing communication skills, mentoring also helps to develop the obvious questioning and listening skills. Communication skills are vital as they will assist people interact better with their own immediate and future colleagues.
  • Focused mission, vision and strategic plan - when we receive support and encouragement, we come up with new ideas, and are able to focus on the bigger picture.  Our mentor or coach usually challenges us to utilise our talents and to focus on our the long-term aim.

So the answer to the question “Asking for help - do we really have to?” is  “Yes, we really do!”  The longer we procrastinate or give in to  pressures to keep on top daily chores at the cost of a longer term career, the further away we remain from setting/achieving our goals.  Equally, the sooner we give ourselves some space to reflect and be guided by another, the sooner we can embark on a journey where the finish line is visibly  ahead.

For all these reason, no matter what form of support works best for you, be it coaching, mentoring or sponsorship, the important point is to recognise that (1) you can be more successful with the help of another and (2) the time to ask for the assistance is NOW.