Can a greater focus on diversity and gender equality in the workplace advance sustainability?

It is 2015 and, amazingly, it is still a man’s world. The World Economic Forum just released its Global Gender Gap report, and it looks like we’ll have to wait until 2095 – 80 years from now – for gender parity in the global workplace. Nine years of WEF data reveal that change for women has been agonizingly slow and uneven.

Klaus Schwab, WEF’s founder and executive chairman, says the business case for pursuing gender equality is clear. “Only those economies that have full access to their talent will remain competitive and will prosper,” Schwab said at the report’s release.

A new review of studies on diversity and the business case by thinktank The B Team and Virgin Unite shows that the proven benefits for companies pursuing diverse workforces include: better financial performance; better business performance and reputation; better customer connections and market share; better and broader talent; and better innovation and group performance. Innovation is, of course, crucial to companies’ ability to solve problems and create more sustainable products and practices.

“Some employers are doing the right thing because they realise that it will actually help them,” says Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at the non-profit organisation Women Employed, based in Chicago. “They see that their customers care about what they are doing, and of course they don’t want them pointing a finger about what they are not doing.”

Slow change

In a UN report based on nine years of data, the world has seen only a small improvement in equality for women in the workplace.

Iceland is the best place in the world to be a woman. Almost half of Icelandic companies have women on the board.

Diversity on top

There is reputational risk when companies ignore the gains that they stand to make from diversity, including achieving gender parity as well as racial diversity. A storm of criticism was heaped upon Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella last autumn when he said women should not ask for raises and instead rely on “karma” for advancement. Not long after Nadella’s statement, Microsoft’s diversity numbers were released, and they seemed to paint a less-than-advanced picture: the Microsoft workforce is 75% male and 60% white.

But now for the kicker: in March, investment firm Calvert (which has studied the diversity issue since an earlier 2009 report) found that Microsoft is among the best companies in the S&P 100 in terms of its diversity practices. With Calvert’s scoring, Microsoft tied for first place in the rankings with Dow Chemical, Citigroup, Target, Merck, PepsiCo, Lockheed Martin, Eli Lilly, Wells Fargo, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. In explaining the results, Calvert intimated that companies are really only at the start of doing what needs to be done to achieve diversity.

Microsoft, like many of the S&P 100, is male dominated

Lack of diversity, according to Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at the Warwick Business School, gives the wrong message to younger generations within and outside the company. Most importantly for sustainability, she says, is that the innovative ideas needed to solve global problems often spring from disruption of the status quo.

Transparent release of diversity data, which acknowledges that there’s a problem to be solved, is the obvious first step in achieving gender and racial balance in a company’s workforce. US diversity organization RainbowPush, led by the Rev Jesse Jackson, has for decades been urging companies to publish their diversity statistics and then implement ways to balance their workforces. Amazingly, the tech industry has fought this, citing competition issues, and it was only last year that Google, Facebook and a score of others along with Microsoft finally published their numbers. Equally astounding is that a small group that includes IBM and Oracle has still failed to do so.

Transparency doesn’t move the needle on its own, of course, and sadly, neither do many of the fledgling efforts companies have taken thus far. In fact, where gender equality is concerned, a UN/Mercer report finds in its comprehensive global study of 1.7 million women in 28 markets that companies’ “well-intended diversity efforts” are not significantly improving women’s workforce participation and progression.

Rev Jesse Jackson is pushing for transparency

Intel, which has disclosed its diversity data and tried to become more diverse in the past decade, according to spokeswoman Gail Dundas, says that while knowing the numbers is key, having strong leadership on the issue from the top is a requirement. Intel’s newish chief executive Brian Krzanich, in announcing a new, $300m effort at getting Intel’s workforce to look “more representative”, said he was treating diversity and gender equality as just another business problem to be solved. Intel now has a chief diversity officer, Ros Hudnell, (as do Microsoft and Google among others) and impressively, the company says it will tie executive pay to reaching its goals.

“We know we don’t have an exact solution yet,” Dundas says, “but we realized we had to approach this by taking a concrete goal that we can measure against. I don’t know that any company has ‘cracked the code’ but I do know that setting the objective – increasing the percentage of women in the US Intel workforce to 32% by 2020 – was step one.”

Intel is investing $300m in diversity


Lonely at the top

Only 5% of the S&P 500 have female chief executives, including PepsiCo, Avon Products, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and IBM. Female representation at the top is highest in consumer staples and telecom.

Source: Money Mag

Keeping women happy

Harriet Greenberg, a partner at New York accounting firm Friedman, is a passionate advocate for gender representation in her company. In the field of accounting, more women than men are hired straight out of college. Retaining this female talent is difficult, however, Greenberg says, which is one of the reasons she started an internal Women’s Development Network.

“It’s really a dramatic drop, in women leaving, and this is not a Friedman problem, it’s an industry problem,” Greenberg says. Women leave, she says, because of other responsibilities – marriage, young children, older parents that need help – that make it impossible to shoulder the accounting profession’s intense time demands.

Offering true flexibility, Greenberg says, is the only way to keep women and also keep them moving up the ranks. She celebrated when two women became Friedman partners last year. But Greenberg says flexibility cannot be one-size-fits-all – for example, just the ability to telecommute may not be enough.

This need for companies to find non-traditional solutions is reflected in Mercer’s report, which found that “check-the-box” leave or flexibility programmes might not help to improve gender equality. Greenberg says flexible work arrangements must also be accompanied by ongoing coaching and training for women so that they ask for exactly what they need – a skill she says is underdeveloped in female employees.

Flexible work hours help retain female staff

Ursula Mead, who developed an anonymous scorecard platform called InHerSight for people to rate their employers on personal, career, and family policies, says she feels there’s momentum around improving the workplace for women, but companies are not yet truly listening to what women experience and then shifting the work culture to support them.

“A company might think that because they are offering a week of [paid] maternity leave, that constitutes support,” Mead says. “They haven’t collected data that really measures the reality of the workplace their employees experience .”

The InHerSight scorecards, Mead says, can be revealing to a company that might think it’s doing pretty well. Microsoft, for example, which just 12 employees have rated so far, gets a 3/5 overall, scoring high on maternity leave, flexible work hours, and paid time off. Where Microsoft seems to break down, according to raters, is in its “male-dominated” culture that runs like an “old boys’ club”, with women who want to advance “ghettoized in non-leadership disciplines”.

Of course, 12 opinions do not make a representative sample of Microsoft’s employees, of which there are around 40,000 at its Seattle headquarters alone. Mead, who launched InHerSight last spring, says she is committed to getting good data from as many voices of working women as possible. “We’re not looking for one model company, and it’s not just about policy or changing a statistic. We want enough scorecards for companies to feel confident about being actionable.” 

Global divide

Gender inequality is not just about jobs and wages – 3.5 billion women on the planet face limitations in fundamental rights; diminished economic opportunity; and unjust judgments and stereotypes. Looking to the future, North America has the least projected growth in improving women’s work equality, while Europe/Oceania and Latin America have the highest projected growth in achieving gender equality in workforces.

Source: UN/Mercer report

Breaking gender stereotypes

But if policy prescriptions don’t necessarily bring about significant change in gender equality in the workplace, what does? In the Mercer report, transparency and good data-gathering come first. Broad-spectrum leadership like Intel’s on the issue is a necessity. But from there things get a little more complicated. New programmes and new benefits will only work, it seems, if an “enabling environment” or culture can also be created.

Jackie Wu, the male founder of a start-up robotics company called Eight Six Ninety-One Technologies, is taking a unique approach to letting women excel at his tiny company. Wu says he became aware of the gender gap in grad school – male students would eagerly show their projects while females held back. When he tried to discuss it, strong emotions were elicited, he said.

Confidence building helps women to break the mould

After reading Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In about women and leadership, Wu decided to try to create an equitable workforce at Eight Six Ninety-One. In addition to setting a hiring goal for women, he’s tried something novel. “After learning about the tendency that women do not speak up or take credit, we have policies in place to counterbalance this effect,” Wu says. Employees carry around a notebook and pen and when female employees speak, everyone is required to take notes.

“Maybe this seems extreme,” Wu says, “but it’s not really the notes themselves. It’s the ritual of getting ready to write which forces everyone to really listen and take into consideration what the person is saying, and who is saying it.”

Wu says creating this type of meritocracy is a work in progress. His company will require a large number of engineers as it grows, and women engineers are difficult to find – the percentage of female computer science and engineering grads is falling, not rising. With such a small company and little economic clout, Wu says the notebooks will have to do. “Notebooks are cheap,” he says, “and it’s a very low price to pay for gender equality.”

Intel, on the other hand, has royal resources to try to push at the problem, but Gail Dundas says the answers aren’t easy. Intel sponsors an external programme called “Stay With It” to try to keep female students on an engineering path during the first tough years of post-secondary education. Internally, chief diversity officer Ros Hudnell is holding open dialogue sessions at managerial levels to try to point out the unconscious bias and attitudes that can only be changed by awareness. Hudnell has found, Dundas says, that the discoveries people make about their biases need to translate into reinforcing actions quickly, for the awareness to stick.

Make equality part of a larger company goal

While Dundas admits the difficulties of finding the perfect solution, she has faith that Intel will reach its goals. “We’re putting $300m toward this and it’s not the money per se, it’s really the goal,” she says. “The money will make it possible to try things and take risks, and even at first fail. At a company like Intel where it really is recognised how critical innovation is, and how you have to be diverse to get that innovation, it’s that goal that drives a company like ours to succeed.”

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of gender consultancy 20-first, says in a recent blog on this issue that the one thing companies must learn to do is make gender balance and equality part of a larger and satisfying, company-sustaining goal. She says messages from a company must be inclusive and upbeat, focusing on the opportunity in getting the most talented, diverse people.

“Best-in-class companies are moving on from an era of over-focusing on women as the solution to balance – now they are focusing on managers,” she writes. “Let’s not lose the managers by accusing them. The goal is more engaged employees and more connected customers. Let’s make sure gender ‘bilingualism’ is built in.”  

The Principles

The UN’s Women Empowerment principles are a clear-cut way for companies to adopt gender equality as part of their sustainability efforts.

1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality

2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination

3. Ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all women and men workers

4. Promote education, training and professional development for women

5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women

6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy

7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

diversity  gender  gender equality  income inequality  inequality  inequality briefing 

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