For this year’s International Women’s Day, actively “choose to challenge” gender inequality

The global COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest in the US has shined a light on something we already knew and has brought diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to center stage. These events have acted as a lightning rod and are driving business leaders to implement policies, practices and partnerships that further social justice. Organizations now have a unique opportunity to place gender parity at the heart of business recovery.


Aptly, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated annually on March 8, is #ChooseToChallenge, recognizing that challenge brings change. Welcoming this theme, Mercer has partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to produce a special report on a revitalized vision for DEI. This forthcoming report prescribes a holistic change management and communication framework for challenging inequalities and driving meaningful impact. Choosing to challenge the status quo of gender inequality in the workforce is a fundamental part of the equation.

Engage: Commit leadership and align the full workforce

Solving business issues such as gender parity requires engaging all leaders to drive efforts across the entire organization — including workforce needs, supply chain, customer demographics and shareholder expectations.

Notably, achieving gender parity requires creating a holistic DEI strategy that transcends one-off projects for system-wide change. To ensure long-term success, companies should continuously nurture corporate culture to reinforce and sustain DEI. It’s necessary to consider the culture broadly, understanding how employees will experience the impact of changing policies and programs.


Mercer’s research shows that about half of managers are currently involved in DEI activities, up from 39% in 2016. But initiatives and corresponding training don’t always trickle down to shape culture positively for everyone. For example, only 33% of organizations train managers to support employees through parental leave and return-to-work – initiatives that directly impact many female employees. Training managers in change communication helps foster an inclusive environment where all employees are engaged and feel a sense of belonging.

Diagnose: Root DEI strategy in proof, data and analytics

Leaders should have a clear, data-generated snapshot of what the organization looks like from a gender parity standpoint and a roadmap of where it’s heading in its current trajectory. But the lack of data on other progress indicators and how they intersect with gender has made it difficult for organizations to track performance and identify gaps, according to a report from S&P Global. As a result, most organizations still focus on mainstream gender metrics required by regulatory bodies, such as the representation of women in leadership roles. 

While looking at the composition of leadership is critical, genuinely diverse and sustainable representation requires organizations to analyze internal labor movements and people processes deeply — how they recruit, develop, evaluate, reward, appoint, promote and retain. Looking at these areas holistically will provide a comprehensive, detailed view of where an organization’s gender parity progress stands now and project where it is heading in the future.


One opportunity gaining ground is the use of data routinely available in human resource information systems, enabling organizations to identify and quantify some of the most influential factors in securing and managing a gender diverse and empowered workforce. Employee surveys and focus groups also are possible avenues for enriching data with first-hand insights about the role that gender plays in an organization. Social network analysis is another emerging technique that can help evaluate patterns that might be disadvantaging women and other demographic groups.

Take action: Integrate DEI into policies, practices and programs

While organizations have increasingly pursued gender diversity, equality and inclusion in recent years, few have embraced a truly holistic approach that integrates elements into all processes.


To start, organizations must focus on long-term success rather than temporary gains. For example, an over-emphasis on diversity in hiring talent and choosing suppliers often leads to a revolving door. It’s a short-term and ultimately ineffective solution for organizations that lack an inclusive environment and the infrastructure to help women grow and thrive. On the other hand, a review of comprehensive talent management processes can help mitigate bias and ensure full transparency, laying the foundation for such infrastructure.


Other critical actions for organizations in pursuit of greater gender diversity involve infusing DEI into training, development, grievance procedures and benefits. Establishing the right policies is one step; getting the workforce to embrace them is another. For example, you can offer market-leading flexible leave benefits, but it’s up to managers to support and encourage employees in using them. Leading by example and promoting nontraditional work models is crucial.

Be accountable: Set goals, measure progress and share transparently

Gender parity isn’t likely to be attained for almost a century, according to WEF data, meaning if we continue as is, none of us will likely see it in our lifetimes. There’s urgent work to do, and while developing and enforcing a DEI strategy is essential, it isn’t complete without accountability. To get there, leaders must continuously set goals, measure progress and share results.


DEI dashboards and scorecards track how representation changes over time, using defined metrics tied to the DEI roadmap. Transparency in data reporting reduces the potential for inaccurate interpretations by employees and other stakeholders. These can occur when an organization doesn’t clearly communicate its current status and plans on its DEI journey.


With a holistic framework — energized by data and anchored by accountability — organizations can take the lead and choose to challenge gender inequality today and in the years, to come.

Martine Ferland
by Martine Ferland

President and CEO, Mercer; Vice Chair, Marsh & McLennan

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