GrowingChampions: It’s time to act on gender diversity

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 9, 2018 - July 15, 2018.
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Do organisations recognise the benefits of gender diversity? The dialogue has been ongoing and the business case has been long established. The benefits are clear. Gender diversity drives innovation, enhances productivity and positively impacts financial performance.

The challenge, however, has been to make it a business and strategic priority, with companies taking a proactive approach to identify targeted issues to tackle, thoughtfully considering the right interventions needed, and ultimately having greater involvement and accountability from the CEO. To move towards this, it is important to measure key metrics on gender in the workplace. This can also help shed light on the complex challenges that may arise when implementing various gender policies and initiatives.

In Southeast Asia (SEA), the female workforce is 42% — above the global average of 39%. But beyond achieving a balanced gender ratio, it is also important to consider other aspects, such as advancing women into leadership positions, which remains a challenge. And companies have been slow in taking a holistic approach to addressing gender issues at the workplace.

Our research indicates that few companies in SEA have taken a proactive stance on gender diversity. Companies tend to limit interventions to the most basic and to meet compliance and government mandates. Research suggests that some interventions do not resonate with women and are not effective enough to actually make a difference. In other words, slow progress on the gender diversity agenda can be caused by the following two reasons:

• Not focusing on the right interventions. Misalignment in understanding the key obstacles to gender diversity will lead to ineffective interventions. When there is a disconnect between the initiatives senior management may perceive as useful and what the women employees actually view as effective, the result may be a lower take-up rate for gender programmes offered and less investment in critical areas with the highest return.

• Ineffective implementation. One of the biggest obstacles is the isolated implementation of gender programmes. For instance, the HR function may introduce a new initiative such as a flexible working model, but other business units and leaders, including the line managers, may not necessarily understand their relevance and how to make this work in practice. As a result, they may not be fully supportive and women employees may find themselves facing stigma or fear negative perceptions when opting for gender programmes. To create sustained impact, business leaders must work together to provide strategic input to the design of the programmes, treat these as high priority and be accountable for the desired outcomes of gender diversity efforts.

Gender diversity needs a holistic approach, covering all stages of interaction with women employees and various aspects of their growth. The key is to identify the specific challenges and measure the right metrics. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) recommends five metrics to measure, to include pay, recruitment, retention, advancement and representation. The BCG research also establishes that women cite advancement and retention as the top issues (45% and 36% respectively).

• First, companies need to assess pay levels to ensure men and women in the same roles earn the same pay. It is also necessary to map perceptions of men and women to ensure there are no unintentional biases against women when determining pay scales. One way to do this is to review formulas behind discretionary pay such as performance and signing bonuses. The idea is to make both men and women employees benefit from equitable policies on pay.

• Next, companies need to make sure that they are recruiting a strong pipeline of women talent. It is important to track and maintain a balanced ratio of men to women along the entire recruiting funnel — among people applying for positions, receiving interviews, advancing to final rounds and being hired. In industries that may have historically had trouble attracting women (such as industrial goods and the tech sectors), looking at each stage of the funnel is key to preventing strong female candidates from being overlooked. In such sectors, companies need to deploy out-of-the-box interventions to maximise the intake of women from a low-volume talent pool.

• Retention of women is also a major issue. Companies need to know the percentages of women and men as well as attrition rate at each level of seniority. This will help establish the gaps and where the ladder breaks for women. Even a differential of one or two percentage points in the attrition rate of men and women can have a huge effect over a 10- or 15-year period. Companies need to revisit their policies to create an environment where women feel included, with strong role models and interventions that not only help women retain their jobs, but also improve their work-life balance.

• It is not enough to get women through the front door. Companies need to ensure that they also climb the organisation ladder. Where retention ensures that women do not leave, advancement ensures that women are promoted into leadership positions. Some of the soft indicators include whether female employees believe they have fair opportunities to be considered for senior leadership roles. BCG research indicates that women are equally ambitious as men and that the corporate culture has a significant impact on cultivating ambition levels. Companies need to instil a clear commitment to providing a conducive environment for growth. Line managers and leaders must be willing to mentor and prepare or promote women for leadership positions. Measuring the percentage of women promoted each year as a share of the total cohort or in proportion to the promotions accorded to men will clearly indicate if high-potential women who are being retained by the company are also advancing.

• Finally, companies should ensure representation of women across multiple functions of an organisation. Beyond HR and marketing, which typically have a higher share of women, leadership opportunities for women must be encouraged in areas such as technology, analytics, strategy, business management and engineering, and so on. Understanding the dynamics of potential imbalance and addressing this is key to driving progress.

Measuring these five metrics is an important start, but is not enough. Companies need to take a disciplined approach to planning and implementation. Assessing the status quo will uncover what the key challenges are and determine what is most important to tackle. This will help in prioritising goals such as retention of women in managerial positions or equity in promotion rates. Once the goals are set, companies can identify and introduce evidence-based interventions that will be most effective in achieving them.

It is critical to avoid the temptation of choosing the most easy-to-deliver interventions as opposed to the ones that generate the highest payoff. The objective is to ensure that the interventions are highly valued by the women workforce and deliver tangible results. Companies also need to be diligent in monitoring progress over time, to determine whether they are making real and sustainable gains and to make relevant changes where needed.

In conclusion, gender diversity makes business sense. It will positively contribute to productivity and financial performance of an organisation. Companies must take a more proactive stance. There will be no quick wins, unless the CEOs drive gender diversity as a strategic priority, with firm commitment and measurable goals. In the process, they need to measure what matters. This in turn will help them act on what gives the largest return on investment, reinforcing gender diversity as a business imperative.

Su En Yong is professional development manager with the Boston Consulting Group in Kuala Lumpur

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