Last week I was delivering a session on leadership conduct at a global investment bank. There were 20 people in the room, and only two of them were women. I was not surprised - this dynamic is fairly typical in my management/leadership sessions. In fact, I still remember the last time it was the other way around and men were in the minority - it was last January 2018! And while it's commonplace, I still notice the imbalance. Every single time.
While progress has been made and there are many fantastic initiatives in place to try to address the gender balance in workplaces, progress remains slow and we still have far to go. More worryingly perhaps, according to McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2017 study, almost 50 percent of men think that it is "sufficient" when just one in ten senior leaders in their company is a woman, and one-third of women agree.
So how can businesses tackle this difficult issue? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Regularly remind people of the business benefits of gender diversity. There is increasing evidence showing a correlation between diversity at the executive level and profitability and value creation. In 2018, McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 27 percent more likely to outperform their national industry average in terms of economic profit compared to bottom quartile companies. Diverse teams also outperform homogeneous teams in creative problem solving, analytical tasks and communication skills. Businesses need a range of different perspectives to drive innovation, reduce the risk of group think and increase their "collective intelligence".
2. Work with employees (particularly leaders and managers, since culture comes from the top) to help them to become more aware of their biases and preferences. As human beings, we are hardwired to feel more comfortable with people who we perceive to be like us and so we connect more easily with them. This plays out in many ways - for example, in the trust that we develop with people; in the time we spend with them; the way we talk to them; the opportunities we give them; the (often unconscious) decisions we make about them and their capabilities, commitment and potential. The more we can become more aware of our own personal wiring, our own biases and preferences, the better we can be at minimising the impact of them on the decisions we make and our interactions with our colleagues.
3. Support middle managers to manage their diverse teams effectively, so that everyone feels included and valued, and psychologically safe with their colleagues. If we feel safe, we're more likely to contribute our ideas and collaborate more effectively (leading to the better business performance highlighted above).
4. Ensure that recruitment, performance and promotion processes are fair and transparent. For example, think carefully about the wording of your job adverts, as the use of gender-biased wording in advertising decreases the likelihood of job applications from female candidates. When making your interview shortlist, make sure you include a women - and if no women have applied, try to find one. Ensure there is gender diversity in the interview panel. And conduct capability-based interviews to minimise the risk of bias creeping into recruitment decisions.
5. Tackle inappropriate workplace conduct, such as comments with sexual overtones masquerading as workplace "banter". Educate and support leaders and managers to be aware of their impact and influence, and their responsibility to set clear boundaries, create an inclusive and respectful environment and to call out comments and behaviour that are inappropriate.
6. Offer employees flexibility to fit work into their lives. Not only will this enable a diverse workforce to balance the many responsibilities in their lives, but it will bolster their feelings of autonomy, which is a key driver for intrinsic motivation and engagement.
7. Most importantly perhaps, get leaders -particularly male leaders - on board with the need for greater gender diversity (and inclusion in general) and hold them accountable. Since culture starts from the top, business leaders need to demonstrate their commitment to this. In particular, they need to encourage their management population (which usually comprises of a majority of men) to invest in gender diversity, since they are often the ones who can influence whether a women is likely to be promoted (by giving them stretch assignments, advocating for them and advising them on career progression). After all, "achieving gender equality requires the engagement of women and men, girls and boys. It is everyone's responsibility" (Ban Ki-moon).
We work with clients in a broad range of sectors to deliver impactful training to leaders, managers and all staff on diversity, inclusion and workplace culture - please do get in touch if you'd like to understand more about our approach.