Sue Jefferson: Gender diverse companies are more profitable

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A call for gender parity in business is one of the main themes of this year’s annual International Women’s Day, on March 8. “Balance drives a better working world,” we’re told, and “the race is on for a gender-balanced boardroom”.

The rallying cry is backed up by hard facts. Gender diverse companies are more profitable and efficient and a diverse talent pool results in better ideas, more pace and the agility to outperform.

CEOs and HR leaders tell me of their frustration that even when D&I is a company priority, women still aren’t progressing to top positions. So why, when the facts are stacking up in its favour, is gender balance in the workplace so difficult to achieve?

Emotional barriers and unspoken fears in both men and women are the real reason why the diversity goals are not being met. Unless we win over hearts and minds, we’re kidding ourselves if we think any real progress has been made. The three real hurdles to progress are –

Hesitant women: For some reason the majority of us hesitate in stepping forward. We might work hard, do a great job – but sit back and wait to be recognised, which won’t happen. I suggest 80 per cent of the solution lies with women themselves and this can be remarkably simple to achieve once armed with the tools to do so.

We have to take ownership of our career path to get into the sights and mindset of those appointing to the roles we want.

I’d advise individuals to start with a career conversation with your line manager – outlining your role or experience ambitions, asking what is missing to achieve this, then how you can work together to help this be a reality and when. End this with an agreed action plan.

Hesitant leaders: The reasons leaders don’t promote women are often completely unspoken – but if we don’t acknowledge these fears, we won’t make progress. When I do raise these with senior managers there’s often a huge sense of relief.

Common concerns are: Will women have the toughness and mental resilience to cope with the tough and lonely world at the top?

Will a woman upset the dynamic of a male-dominated boardroom? Boards can be combative and dysfunctional but the chair or CEO is familiar with this pattern, and uses a default way to manage them. A new different dynamic may throw his management style into disarray.

Can flexible working work? With client pressures, progress and pace demands, team dialogue and decision-making schedules, the default concern is the inflexibility of flexibility. Acknowledging this with a two-way conversation about what both parties need will enable a win-win approach. Give and take on both sides. And this isn’t just for women. Fathers want it. Non-parents may need it. Millennials actively seek it.

Putting proven practices in place to develop female talent, overcomes a common response that there are not women in the organisation to promote. Companies should also facilitate conversations with leaders about diversity of thinking and its obvious benefits, then work through the understandable concerns. Have appropriate leaders sponsor high potential female talent – and see the culture change.

Resistant managers: These are the people who fear most the imagined consequences from promoting women. They’ve reached their optimum sphere of influence and power in middle management. Maintaining status quo is safe. However as this group is most influential in making appointments, they are a key blocker of gender balance.

Unless we recognise and address these very real fears they will take years to overcome and we haven’t got the time. I question the effectiveness of unconscious bias training; instead I would embark on collaboration and inclusion workshops – they are positive, add new skills and are… inclusive.

Never more so do businesses need to become agile and unlock great ideas quickly to meet the challenges of an uncertain and ever-changing marketplace.

The key to achieving this probably isn’t even in new recruitment – but in engaging the entire workforce to consider and take advantage of broader thinking, from a broader range of people, in order to access the untapped talent within and outperform the field.