When first isn’t good enough: how to enable all women to win

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Last month the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development named Beata Javorcik its first woman holder of the top economist job. It follows Gita Gopinath taking up her post in January as the IMF’s chief economist, and Stacey Cunningham as New York Stock Exchange president last year – the first female in the top role in its 226-year history. International Women’s Day, this Friday, is a chance to celebrate these firsts. But it is also a reality check of just how big the 108-year global gender gap is.

Thankfully the drum we’ve been banging for years about diversity is starting to become – gradually – the beat to which businesses also move. In Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends study, executives shared that delivering on diversity was a top concern this year.

The C-suite is right to pay more attention to diversity. With disruption keenly felt – from traditional competitors, to new challengers and AI – executives need to seize every advantage to stay ahead, and equity brings real business value. We know diverse teams increase the likelihood of innovation, of empathising with a broad customer base, and of boosting employee morale. Indeed, Mercer’s study shows that thriving employees are four times more likely to work for a company that delivers equity than their non-thriving peers (78% vs 18%).

So what three things should be on the 2019 agenda to make progress on gender balance?

Start with pay and promotion. As we’ve seen, good intentions are not good enough. What is needed is concerted action to address inequities. Just 11% of companies use analytics to measure the extent of pay inequities in their organisation and even fewer (5%) deploy modeling techniques to help correct them and prevent them from re-emerging.

Correcting pay is vital, but pay is often the symptom – not necessarily the cause – of the problem. Perhaps more important is the promotion parity paradox – an issue that unsurprisingly weighs more on female executives’ minds. When asked which human capital risks are most concerning, women executives rank “inadequate workforce/leadership diversity” among the top three; their male counterparts do not. Mercer’s When Women Thrive research notes that the ranks of women thin out long before they reach the upper echelons: women make up just 33% of managers, and 26% of senior managers. Not surprisingly, companies that apply a gender lens to promotion and performance management – and check for disparities – have greater female representation.

When women get to the top they lead differently from men. Women focus more on aligning people strategy with the business (91% vs 78%). And they place more emphasis on the employee experience – ranking it top in terms of potential ROI for the company (men put “simplifying talent processes” #1), and saying that using analytics to discover what drives engagement is the most value-adding (while men say build/buy/borrow data).

Providing an environment for women to thrive is the next area for improvement. There are clear differences between men and women in motivation for joining a company. This year, female employees are far more likely than their male peers to say work/life balance helps them thrive at work (59% vs. 48%), and women identify “workload” as the number one reason for an unhealthy work environment (compared to “corporate culture” for men). And while job security is the main reason all employees stay with their employer, this is followed by medical insurance and flexible hours for women, but not for men. As my colleague Pam Jeffords says, addressing the female deficit means we cannot shy away from gender differences when it comes to health. We are different, we have different priorities, and if we want equity we need to ensure our brand proposition is different, too.

If organizations are serious about helping women, then thinking about retirement has to be part of the package. Three-quarters of all employees intend to keep working post retirement age, but the reasons differ by gender: financial necessity is what drives women (one in three women say this), whereas to occupy time is men’s main aim. Women face a perfect storm financially, because they tend to work in lower-paid employment, have more significant gaps in service, and live longer than men. Customised retirement programmes that factor in this reality are a good place to start.

Finally, we cannot succeed without realising that the human agenda – both for men and women – is the business agenda. AI and automation are without doubt changing the workplace landscape, but individuals’ response to change (and this year HR are concerned about high attrition and low engagement) can be a major impediment to transformation efforts.

As the one function that touches every individual in an organisation and appreciates the employee experience, HR has a unique opportunity to lead the way. Getting HR’s participation at the ground floor of transformation is essential to winning consent for that change – yet today only two in five HR leaders participate in the idea generation stage of transformation. Women leaders may actually have the edge: more women in the C-suite say their HR team is involved in the ideation of major change than men (51% vs 37%), and more women see the imperative to address diversity, equity and equality.

With the intersection of artificial and human intelligence infusing through the workplace, we have an unprecedented opportunity to achieve the balance and diversity that today’s workplace craves. That would make a truly disruptive first.

Kate Bravery
by Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer