'One step forward, one step back' for gender diversity in leadership

24 July 2018 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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Empowering women to become leaders in sometimes male dominated business environments is no easy task, although change is increasingly on the cards, as various initiatives, from government policies to shifts in the business environment, make themselves felt. Yet while change is happening, a new report notes that in some instances companies are feigning change, rather than championing it.

A study released by Grant Thornton has shown that efforts to elevate women to the top of the world’s biggest businesses have yielded a degree of success in recent years. The proportion of businesses with at least one woman in senior management has grown from 68% in 2015, to 75% this year. However, while there are more women represented at companies that formerly had no female representation in their senior leadership; the absolute increase in women across all senior roles has been more muted. Having improved by 3% in 2016 to 25%, the level actually declined to 24% this year.

According to researchers, concern remains that elevation is part of saving face or meeting regulatory requirements, rather than genuine change to reduce the explicit and implicit barriers faced by women seeking to advance their career to leadership – while arguments that diversity has positive benefits to business outcomes may be being ignored.

Top gender equality

This would seem to correlate with the recent Parliamentary hearing on women in executive management for the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee, which quizzed representatives from the water company Severn Trent, packaging company Smurfit Kappa, car parts and bike retailer Halfords, the infrastructure firm Stobart Group and house-builder Persimmon in July. At the hearing, MPs were broadly informed by the executives that shareholders are more concerned about environmental issues than promoting women to senior positions in boardrooms, while some are not convinced that businesses need more women in top jobs at all.

Rest of the World

Interestingly, Africa remains a key bastion of female leaderships, at a 30% proportion, while Eastern Europe is well ahead of the EU average at 36% and 27% respectively. Since the election of more conservative leaders in the US, male dominance at US companies has reasserted itself, with the proportion falling 2% from last year to 21%.

In terms of the kinds of policies companies have in place to improve outcomes for women, focus on equal pay for men and women performing the same role was cited by 81% of respondents – unequal pay remains a key concern in the UK with women. Some focus has also been placed on non-discrimination policies for recruitment (71%) of respondents, as well as paid parental leave (59%) of respondents.

Gender equality policies

Expanding businesses to include more women in leadership positions is for many not simply a public reputation or box ticking exercise. 65% of respondents cited attracting and retaining employees, while 65% also said it would allow them to live up to organisational values. Around half said gender equality policies boost company performance.

Glass ceiling

Grant Thornton also found a number of factors impose barriers and prevent equality policies and practices from being introduced. These include levels of complexity in translating good intentions into policy (cited by 22%), stereotypes about gender roles (21%) and a lack of evidence that it has a positive impact on company performance (16%).

In addition to this, bosses have traditionally neglected the needs of their female workforce in terms of familial support – often indirectly penalising women who take time away to start families. Family focused policies launched by firms are aiming to change that, featuring prominently in their change packages, including provision for paid parental leave (59%), flexible working hours, (57%) and part-time working (54%). Remote working (40%), publication of data on gender diversity and subsidised childcare are less highly valued factors – with around 20% each in terms of buy-in.

Interestingly, the report also revealed that much maligned quotas are not often used by companies, cited by just 16% of respondents. Analysts did find that there is some call for more use of such measures – which tend to be less positively seen – as the gender gap prevails.

Championing the cause

One of the primary support mechanisms for delivering change is for leadership, to champion the cause of change. Policies, while a part of wider efforts to effective change – do need to be policed and rollout – in part to avoid tokenism, reduce mini- me recruitment and promotion and introduce sponsorship. Championship also boosts cultural shift – with entrenched cultures and implicit biases being key areas of concern. Finally, leadership can make inclusion and diversity close values, they can set goals and link progress with regards.

Commenting on the study, Francesca Lagerberg, the Global Leader for Network Capability at Grant Thornton International, said, “The last year has seen global business take one step forward but one step back when it comes to gender diversity in leadership.”

She added that there is no single initiative that will solve the problem of gender diversity. Increasing the number of women in business leadership, like any worthwhile change, will take time and may be hard, and Lagerberg concluded, “Businesses, including Grant Thornton, must navigate their way and a key part of that will be showing to those potential future leaders that this journey is worthwhile. But by highlighting in this report the current state of play and providing recommendations for business leaders looking to realise the commercial benefit of gender diversity, we hope to help drive change.”