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.

What’s a network to do? Do’s and Don’ts for running a successful in-house network

The rise of the in-house women’s network over the last few years has been remarkable.  I watched them grow from informal gathering of a few colleagues to being influential partners to the organisation.  Having chaired a number of networks myself, I understand their challenges and often work with network committees to help them identify their purpose and set strategy for maximum impact.

Here are a few tips of my own to the running of a successful, influential network:

DO have a strategy

It is difficult to have impact without a clear strategy.  A clear strategy makes it easier to ask for resources and to attract volunteers.  Network leaders should identify the network’s purpose, set goals and determine how they are going to achieve them.

DO represent the grassroots

One of the great benefits of a women’s network is that it is squarely rooted in the junior and mid-levels of seniority within the organisations and understands the challenges of women at those levels (e.g. need for flexible working, appreciation and promotion transparency).  Networks listen and represent those challenges up the chain, providing an essential and often-lacking communications channel between management and team members.

DO provide safe spaces

Networks are great at providing a forum for discussion of stimulating topics that may not get aired, such as what it takes for women to thrive or how to treat others so they feel valued.  One crucial function, therefore, is to hold that space for members so that they can discuss challenges, apprehensions and experiences in a judgment-free, supportive environment.  Whether it’s by hosting lunch-and-learns on specific topics or running facilitated discussions, a safe space in which members can debate and think is worth its weight in gold.

DON’T take on too much

I frequently see networks attempting to deliver the work of another work function, like running soft skills training or helping deliver CSR strategy. While it’s great to cooperate, networks should set boundries between their responsibilities and the responsibilities of support functions.  Networks are run by volunteers whose precious time should be spent delivering on their clearly defined and cautiously guarded remit.

DON’T exclude people

Some women’s networks resist opening their membership to men.  In my experience, this is a mistake.  Men who join gender networks identify with their agenda and want to help.  It would be foolish to turn down members who are supportive and can help raise awareness.  This is also an opportunity to model the behaviours you’d like to see, by treating others the way you’d like to be treated: welcomed, valued and included.

DON’T be afraid to ask for a healthy budget

As women, we tend to shy away from asking for a robust network budget, feeling undeserving or unimportant.  As a result, we often pre-empt the outcome of a budget conversation with our own misgivings.  Yet having a budget that allows networks to achieve their stated goals is crucial and empowering.  Do what it takes by enlisting senior allies, collaborating with other networks and clearly identifying the commercial benefits of the network’s existence.  Above all, don't underestimate the value of your contribution to the organisation.

If you would like me to help your company’s network, please get in touch.

Celebrating Ordinary People

 

28856194655-25336498-17I’ve always thought that there’s too much emphasis in the world on highly talented, intelligent and accomplished people.  Sure, it’s important to recognise and revere them – after all, these are the people who keep notching the progress dial forward for all of us.

But I’m also a great believer in the fact that each one of us is capable of incredible things and that we should all be encouraged and celebrated to do more.

Consider the following example:

Meet Sajda Mughal, MBE – a young Muslim woman who turned a dreadful experience into a force of good.  Sajda is a 7/7 attack survivor.  Setting out on an ordinary day at work, Sajda experienced her worst nightmare by being caught on one of the Underground trains at King’s Cross that was subject to the attacks on 7 July 2005.  Having survived and picked up the pieces, Sajda set out to use her experience to change the world.  She leads JAN Trust, a charity that aims to break down barriers to social inclusion for women, providing women from under-represented groups with a voice, combatting violence against women and providing young people the tools they may need to achieve their ambitions.

An ordinary woman who took matters into her own hands and is making a huge difference.

We all have it within us to accomplish extraordinary achievements.  How many people do you know who run marathons, trek to the North Pole, write blogs, bake incredible cakes, sing like an angel or play the piano like Liberace?  Ordinary people with extraordinary talents and achievements.  Imagine if all these people – like you - used these rare skills not only for their own enrichment but to contribute to their communities or professional organisations.  Imagine if companies learned how to tap into these hidden talent morsels and invite each one of us to contribute fully and authentically.  Both the contributors and the companies would benefit.

But how do we do that?  How do we as individuals channel our hidden talents into our professional lives? How do we as leaders empower colleagues to bring out what lingers behind the facade?  How do we nurture and celebrate ordinary people with extraordinary contributions?

Find out on 21 June 2017 at Voice At The Table’s Flagship Conference: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Contributions.  Featuring speakers who are walking the walk, you can be inspired by these role models who have found strength to share their hidden talents. You will learn how to encourage and nurture extraordinary contributions from colleagues and team members.  You will meet the law firm partner who founded Inspiring Women, the athlete who is now helping other retired athletes to integrate into ordinary life.  Find out how the man who calls himself a feminist is using his influence to help professional women get ahead and be moved by some extraordinary charities – run by ordinary people, like Sajda – who are changing the world, one person at a time.

Click here to find out how you can be a part of this movement!

 

Why do I feel so strongly about gender diversity?

a balanced approach

Let's face it: nowadays, the uttering of the words Gender Diversity tends to evoke more negative than positive reactions, from both men and women.  Both view it as potentially divisive, threatening, even unnecessary.  Yet I can't help but continue to feel that it's the right path to pursue for any woman, man and company that wants more from this world.

So why the negative reaction?  ‘Gender’ is not specific to women.  The very term defines both the male and the female, so how can a term so inclusive be seen to be so divisive?

And what do we mean by ‘gender diversity’?  Well, it’s not about promoting women over men, it’s not about tipping the scales so that women can run the world without men, and it’s not about drawing a line in the sand where all women stand on one side and men on the other.  That would of course be very divisive.

To me, gender diversity is about balance – for both men and women.  Balance at work and balance at home.  Balance in politics and balance in our economy.

According to the likes of McKinsey, if women worked to the same extent with the same responsibilities as men, by 2025 the world’s economy would grow by 26% (that’s $12tn in real money!).  That’s a good thing, right?

According to the Athena Doctrine, 66% of the surveyed adults (64,000 from around the world) agree that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.  So we need more women to share in thought leadership, in politics, education and business.

According to the likes of Catalyst Inc., companies with at least one woman on their board show higher financial returns, lower risk profiles, and greater ROE.  Financial gain (rightly or wrongly) has always been the driving force of most businesses, so that’s good news then, too, isn’t it?

According to most studies, those countries that are the most gender equal are also the countries that score highest on the happiness scale.  And what’s more important than happiness?

According to Dr. Michael Kimmel, American sociologist specialising in gender studies, the more egalitarian our relationships, the happier both partners are.  When men share housework and childcare, their children do better in school; their wives are healthier; and, most notably, the men themselves are healthier. Watch Michael’s TED Talk to hear the full story.

So, by all accounts, establishing gender balance is a good thing.  Then why the negative connotation about something that brings positive influence in every aspect of our lives?  Are we programmed to sabotage everything that’s good for us?  Are we so sceptical about the power of diversity that we don’t even want to give it a try despite ample evidence? Is it the fear that women will take over that stops companies from embracing them as equal citizens and equivalent contributors? Tell me, what am I not seeing?

Because, from where I stand, it's pretty straight forward:

I  want to world to become a better place for everyone.  I want my children to have equal opportunities; I want them to fulfil their potential without encountering artificial barriers; I want organisations to benefit from the wealth of the diversity of thought that each individual – man and woman – brings when they are empowered to speak their mind and share their experiences freely; I want our economy to tap into the resource that’s not being fully utilised, that resource being the female work force; and I want us to value our differences and to grow stronger together as a result.

So that’s why I feel so strongly about Gender Diversity, and my hope is that, some day soon, you will too.

Rina Goldenberg Lynch

Founder, Voice At The Table