Firms pay lip service to gender equality but have no plan to improve

06 March 2020 4 min. read
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As the world prepares to mark the contributions of women to public life and call for global gender equality on International Women’s Day 2020, a new study suggests businesses are failing to walk the talk on the matter. While the vast majority support gender equality as a priority, fewer than half have multi-year diversity and inclusion strategies in place.

The roots of International Women’s Day can be traced back to the Socialist Party of America, which organised a Women's Day in New York City on February 28, 1909. The following year, German revolutionary Clara Zetkin proposed at the 1910 International Socialist Woman's Conference that the 8th of March be honored as a day annually in memory of working women every year.

Ever since, the day has been celebrated as International Working Women's Day or International Women's Day, becoming a focal point in the movement for women's rights as a result. Due to the day’s continued prominence, and the pressure that that movement has managed to ramp up on bosses to fight gender inequality, early March has also become a hotbed of research designed to illustrate progress on that front.

The mounting pile of evidence usually shows two things; more and more managers ‘believe’ in the cause, but precious few are willing or able to translate that into concrete action. 2020 is no different to that end, with Mercer releasing a study into the global habits of top businesses that has shown while 80% of organisations state that improving diversity and inclusion is high on their agenda, fewer than half have a plan in place to improve.

My organization is focused on improving diversity and inclusion

According to a poll of senior HR and business leaders from 1,157 organisations in 54 countries, 52% strongly agreed that their organisation was focused on improving diversity and inclusion (D&I) while 29% simply agreed. These numbers were stronger in a number of locations, including Europe – where a combined 84% agreed to some extent they were prioritising D&I – and the US, which saw 81% say the same. This apparent enthusiasm has not translated into entrenched long-term strategy, however.


Mercer’s research did find that rates for hiring, promoting and retaining women are now comparable to rates for men, while almost three-fourths of organisations have established teams dedicated to conducting pay equity analysis, up from 45% in 2016. Worryingly, though, much of this progress seems to hinge on the continued investment of leadership in the matter.

While 66% of organisations report senior executives are actively engaged in D&I initiatives and programmes – up from 57% in 2016 – that figure comes from a period of relative market stability, and there is little guarantee that this would continue if a large-scale crisis should emerge  in the business world. Should executives find something else to busy themselves with, D&I could fall by the wayside in the absence of a structural long-term strategy to entrench it as a core item on an organisation’s agenda.

My organization actively seeks external recognition for our D&I efforts

Globally, only 42% of respondents to Mercer’s research said that their organisation had a documented multi-year D&I strategy. Europe scarcely fared better, with 1% fewer business leaders ‘strongly agreeing’ their firm had a long-term strategy, and 21% simply ‘agreeing’ that that was the case. Elsewhere, this was similarly the case in Northern America, where only 37% of US and Canada’s organisations agreed in some way.

“Gender equality has evolved into a global imperative, and organisations are taking actions to make a difference,” said Martine Ferland, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mercer. “However, as women continue to face challenges of unequal senior level representation and limited opportunities for career development and advancement across industries and geographies, there is still much work to do to achieve gender balance.”

This seeming short-termism may already be hamstringing D&I progress, as it means companies are failing to address structural barriers to equality in favour of low-hanging fruit. Only 40% of the global workforce is female, up slightly from 38% four years ago, while representation of females in senior leadership roles might have improved by 3% in the top two levels, but Mercer found that generally it decreases as career levels advance.

The news comes in the same week a damning UN Development Programme (UNDP) report found that almost 90% of people are biased against women. Highlighting a “shocking” extent of the global backlash towards gender equality, the UN’s first gender social norm index analysed data from 75 countries which collectively host more than 80% of the global population. It found that almost half of people feel men are superior political leaders, while over 40% believe men make better business executives – highlighting exactly why multi-year, long-term strategies are needed to address the business world’s gender imbalance.