They say that acknowledgement of a problem is the first step towards forming a solution. If that’s true, the ongoing issue of gender inequality starts with acknowledging the simple fact that, despite strides made by the likes of Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, there are still staggering gender disparities in the corporate world.
While it’s a challenging and daunting issue with no easy fixes, two globally acknowledged ‘best employers’, Bain & Company and Sodexo, are tackling the issue head on. Both companies are keen to share the key steps they’ve taken on their journey.
1. IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
, a partner at Bain & Company with over two decades of management consulting experience, says the company started paying attention to gender inequality about a decade ago. “We started paying attention to the fact that we were not having as much success in retaining women through the manager and into the partnership ranks,” she says.
Bain commenced a benchmarking process to identify whether the problem was inherent to their company or something that existed industrywide. The company discovered that not only were gender disparities prevalent among its peer institutions, but the issue actually resembled “a global corporate problem”.
This realisation led to the development of Bain’s Global Women’s Leadership Council (GWLC). Coffman is now chair of the council, and is heavily involved in all gender equality initiatives at the company.
The GWLC consists of 8-10 women partners and there are also three regional operating committees run by these managing directors. Bain’s chief talent officer oversees all efforts at a global level.
Coffman describes GWLC’s goal: “Our role is to oversee the dialogues, initiatives, programs and metrics to try to generate a higher proportion of women on our leadership team, and as quickly as we can.”
Similarly, food service and facility management provider Sodexo, home to 430,000 employees in over 35,000 locations worldwide, has also recognised a shortage of women in its leadership positions. Dr Rohini Anand
, senior vice president and chief diversity officer, set out to make the workforce more representative of the population at large.
“We want to have 25% of our top 300 leadership positions filled by women by 2020,” says Anand. “We have a vision that it should be 50:50, but we’ll start with 25% in top leadership roles.”
Sodexo has focused on four key areas of gender promotion, including leadership development, allowance of flexible work arrangements that “employees don’t have to cite a reason for requesting”, a commitment to gender neutral HR processes, and leadership pledges to gender balance.
The company has also commenced an initiative similar to Bain’s called SWIFt, or Sodexo Women’s International Forum for Talent.
Both of these cultural mandates are making sweeping reforms in their respective organisations, and their businesses are better for it.
2. RECOGNISE THAT FLEXIBILITY IS THE KEY
Bain also takes a multifaceted approach to building female leadership capacity – but Coffman acknowledges that the essential ingredient with any gender equality initiative is flexibility. As she has written in Forbes, although women make up 50% of the American workforce, they only hold 3% of chief executive positions in Fortune 500 organisations.
Coffman does not use the term ‘work-life balance’. As a leading advocate of gender parity among executive levels of leadership, she prefers to think of a professional regime constituting ‘work-life integration’.
“Work-life balance seems to suggest there are still boundaries. It’s like a scale, and one has to outweigh the other at certain times of the day or they have to always be in competition.”
Instead of working a straight 9-5, Coffman explains a typical day: “I’m just as likely to leave my office at 3:30pm to go to one of my kid’s baseball games, get on a conference call at 5pm while I’m driving back, and then do email from 9-10:30pm to make up for whatever I missed.”
Bain has introduced “new mum groups” that include online resources and blogs where women can ask such questions ranging from ‘How do you travel with a breast pump?’ to ‘How do I pick a nanny with the right flexibility for me?’
In addition, Bain makes a big effort to help women reintegrate back into the office after maternity leave. The company speaks to each employee prior to her return to discuss how much she wishes to travel, and also how she can best pursue her passions and interests.
“If you had asked me three years ago, I might have thought that we should ease women back in and they should come back doing non-client facing work or maybe an internal assignment to get their feet under them and then integrate them back into client-facing work three, six or nine months later. I’ve evolved my own thinking on that and so has the firm. It’s still very individual but I think that one of the best things for women is to remember why they had the job before, or why they liked it, or why it energised them.”
Coffman points out that if women come back to oversimplified job tasks, they could feel disempowered and choose to remain in a domestic role.
“And if we bring them back to too much of a different role or a soft pedalled thing, that choice of leaving the home and not being at home with the child is harder to make – especially if it’s going to be a job that they don’t feel is having much of an impact or if they’re not learning or developing their skillset. So I do think that it’s important to not overly coddle women as they’re coming back.”
Coffman is upfront in saying that Bain & Company does not do this “because we’re nice people, or because it’s the politically correct thing to do”. Instead, she says the company does it because it recognises that it will advance the business. “If folks don’t start from that point, the rest of it falls apart really quickly. There are always other priorities that will trump it.”
3. LATTICE TRUMPS LADDER
Coffman debunks the idea of a career ladder in favour of a lattice – the cross-diagonal fence typically used to support vertically growing plants. She says that instead of viewing career path as “up or out”, or a mutually exclusive choice between climbing to more senior ranks or falling off a career trajectory, organisations should offer career paths that allow employees to exercise different roles and move sideways as well as vertically.
At Bain there are numerous examples: parttime and full-time; client-facing rotational roles; time off; transfers; and externships, whereby an employee can work outside the Bain environment in another company for a period.
“There’s a variety of things that you can do, to piece together a career that is still moving you towards manager, partner, client facing, and up to the more senior levels of our firm, but I could show you 12 women and 12 very different 10-year pathways. I believe that’s important, and frankly I think this is getting just as important for men,” she says.
Coffman adds that the notion of a career lattice or a set of pathways that can work for advancement is more appealing to a lot of Bain’s current workers than a more rigid structured path. “It’s more appealing than saying, ‘here’s three years in one role, five years in another, two transfers and P&L role. Good luck. Hope it works for the rest of your life’.”
4. FORMALISE SPONSORSHIP PROGRAMS
A theme that both Coffman and Anand reiterate is that these initiatives do not preclude men from joining in anti-discriminatory efforts or benefiting from their outcomes.
“We have networking groups where membership is open to anyone; in fact, at least 43% of attendees are men,” says Anand.
“We’ve developed courses, including one called I.D. ME, which helps participants learn how to express your brand within the organisation, how to promote yourself, and how to position yourself for advancement.”
One of Bain’s major undertakings involves removing what Sylvia Hewlett, economist and president of Center for Work-Life Policy, calls the ‘Sponsor Effect’. According to this principle, women are far less likely to seek a ‘sponsor’ or professional mentor who is willing to guide them through the informal processes of promotion.
“We wanted to formalise a sponsorship program,” Coffman says. “Each of our women who have achieved the level of manager and above – and we’re cascading it to more junior levels as well – will go through a process, asking ‘who is a more senior person, who I think is truly a sponsor of my work and who might be willing to co-brand their reputation with mine to help me get ahead?’ At the same time, we ask the senior folks, ‘who are you willing to sponsor?’ And we have a matching process.”
Underpinning the sponsorship program is the belief that there will be someone in the firm to go to when there is a chalenge or an issue.
“Most of our sponsors, by the way, are men – our partner group is still majority male,” says Coffman. “I’m not trying to match women managers with women sponsors – it happens occasionally but it’s more helping our male leaders feel equipped to take the women under their wing and sponsor them in a way that they can get to their full potential.”
5. MEASURE SUCCESS ON ALL FRONTS
Anand has found that her company’s gender equality efforts have had a real, meaningful and measurable impact on women in the company.
“The results have been really positive. We currently have women comprising 23% of top management positions, which is up from 16% in 2007,” says Anand. “We’ve definitely made progress. Forty-two per cent of our company’s global executive committee are women – I don’t know of many other companies that can say that.”
In addition, these progressive gender-based reforms have been beneficial for the firm’s bottom line.
“In entities with gender balance management, we’ve actually found higher rates of engagement. There was a four percentage point difference between the entities with gender management and those without,” she says.
“We’ve also found that retention
in those entities was higher than those without gender balance management, and it benefited our brand image because clients viewed the brand better.”
When asked whether she “has it all”, Coffman suggests it may seem that way, but only when viewed from an outside perspective and over a long period of time.
“I’ve been a mum now for almost 15 years, and I think it’s working really well. Would I say that for every three-month period in those 15 years? Absolutely not.
“Part of it is thinking of it as a journey and a long haul thing. I took a six-month sabbatical three years ago and that was a huge rejuvenator for me. It made me appreciate what I have. I’m just thankful that Bain has allowed me to flex my time and help me create the illusion that I have it all.”
This feature is from the August issue of HRD Magazine. Download the issue to read more!
The issue of gender inequality in all ranks of the corporate world continues to haunt most organisations, but strides are being made. Jill Gregorie talks to two global HR leaders about the practical steps their organisations are taking to groom female leaders