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Women in business: beyond policy to real progress

Women in business: beyond policy to real progress

Australia’s culture and business environment are incredibly diverse and leadership needs to reflect that – it’s not a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘must have’ in order to drive sustainable growth, attract leading talent and remain competitive.

  • Greg Keith
  • June 29, 2018
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While policies and programs are important enablers – they won’t create the change. To achieve true gender diversity, and in this case, representation of women in leadership, we need to shift well beyond a game of quotas, policies and box-ticking exercises. While this is part of it, much more needs to come into play.

Recent research shows that globally, businesses have taken one step forward and one step back when it comes to gender diversity in leadership. Research released by Grant Thornton International found that the percentage of businesses around the world with at least one woman in senior management has increased significantly, rising from 66 per cent to 75 per cent in the last year. However, at the same time the proportion of senior roles held by women has marginally declined.

So, what can we do to help create the change required?

We have been investigating the progress of women in business around the globe over the last decade and exploring how business leaders think and feel. Here are some practical steps that can create change.

1. Champion the cause

To create change, senior leadership needs to take the issue seriously and lead from the top. Chris Clarke, chief executive, AdviserPlus comments that “if you look at different businesses with the same policies in place, you’ll see very different landscapes depending on how they’re led from the top.” The first step for any business leader is to demonstrate commitment to the cause.

2. Make diversity and inclusion a core value

Organisational values drive behaviour, so it’s important that the whole business is signed up to diversity and inclusion. Our research shows that translating good intentions into practice is an ongoing challenge for businesses, but Nicole Blythe, national managing partner of people experience at Grant Thornton LLP, highlights that “having a common set of values and identified associated behaviours as the foundation of the company culture can eliminate some of the cumbersome noise and allow you to move more quickly.”

3. Set goals

Making gender diversity a core value is not enough in itself; business leaders should set clear goals and specific targets by which they will measure progress. Stephanie HasenbosCase, Grant Thornton UK partner and people and client experience leader, believes this is crucial: “Diversity and inclusion targets are important so you can align leaders to a shared goal and work together to achieve it.”

4. Link progress to pay

They say that what gets measured gets managed, so business leaders should make diversity and inclusion goals part of the leadership team’s compensation packages to encourage change. Karitha Ericson, COO and deputy CEO at Grant Thornton Sweden believes that “one of the reasons there’s been so little progress on gender diversity is because there isn’t enough consequence for senior leaders.”

5. Avoid tokenism

Simply putting one woman on the senior management team is not enough to ensure a range of voices is heard and for the business to reap the rewards of diversity. As senior director of research at Catalyst, Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon says, “one woman in leadership is better than no women in leadership, and parity is the ideal in representation, but gender diversity is about far more than that. The issue is not only about whether there are women present but also whether women feel their perspectives are valued.”

6. Reduce ‘mini me’ recruitment and promotion

Ms Ericson says: “It is easy for both men and women to unthinkingly recruit and promote other men and women. It takes courage from leaders to choose diversity.” Providing support to understand why this happens and how it can be avoided will forge a better process. Unconscious bias training can help people at all levels of the business avoid the temptation to hire and promote employees who look, speak and think in the same ways.

7. Introduce sponsorship

Sponsorship can have a significantly greater impact on gender diversity in leadership than simple mentoring schemes. As Madeleine Blankenstein, partner at Grant Thornton Brazil, says: “Businesses need to have a mindset of wanting more women to lead. They then need to recruit them or find, nurture and train the talent that is likely already present in their own organisations.”

8. Investigate the benefits

Evidence of the commercial gains brought by gender diversity will help convince sceptics of the need for change and provide justification for investment in new initiatives. There is a wealth of research already available but, as Greg Keith, chief executive officer at Grant Thornton Australia, says: “Increasingly organisations want to work with those who share their values base, so gender diversity can be a really important consideration when clients choose who they work with.”

9. Be comfortable with discomfort

Creating an inclusive business environment that supports gender diversity in leadership will not be easy, so leaders need to be in it for the long term. Claire Paisley, financial services partner at Baringa Partners, believes attitudes need to change before we’ll see real progress: “I think the first step needs to be willingness to talk about gender diversity. Business leaders can find this uncomfortable and don’t necessarily feel they have the right language to have these conversations. The best among them spend time listening to and interacting with their employees to acknowledge and dismantle the barriers to openness and honesty.”

10. Share your story

Business leaders who are open about what is driving change in their own companies can encourage others and help them overcome the complexity of turning theory into action. It can be challenging for business leaders to feel able to be transparent about internal ways of working, and particularly about mistakes they’ve made, but without this we are unlikely to see widespread progress. As Vibeke Hammer Madsen, chief executive officer of Virke says: “Getting this honesty from business leaders sometimes feels like an even tougher job than achieving gender diversity!”

Greg Keith, chief executive officer, Grant Thornton Australia

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