There’s greater awareness, the programs are in place – but little progress made. What more can leaders do?
With movements like #TimesUp and growing transparency around data on the gender gap at work, be it in terms of pay or progression, we can all take comfort that most of us are acutely aware of this: gender inequality is real.
Acknowledging the problem is half the battle won, as they say. Now onto the next part – solving it.
Organisations globally are now, more than ever, ramping up efforts on policies, programs and all sorts of diversity and inclusion events to push the agenda.
Yet, the World Economic Forum said it will take 202 years to bring about gender parity at work. Also, if you attend enough D&I events and do a quick scan of the audience, the bulk of attendees is typically made up of women, instead of it being an equal mixer. Something’s got to give, right?
Why gender inequality persists
The point on audience make-up at D&I events may be anecdotal, but this isn’t: among Fortune 500 CEOs, only about 24 are women. How the top looks like matters because they’re the ones who’ll actually sign off on the policies, programs and events.
“In fact, this kind of homogeneity among leaders is a key part of the problem at lower levels of companies,” wrote the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) research team. “Our data shows that most company leaders – primarily white, heterosexual males – still underestimate the challenges diverse employees face.
“These leaders control budgets and decide which diversity programs to pursue. If they lack a clear understanding of the problem, they can’t design effective solutions.”
BCG recently conducted a survey of 16,500 employees and leaders worldwide to identify the most effective D&I measures.
BCG found that leaders are starting to “get it” in terms of gender diversity. With raised awareness campaigns all around us, men are privier to the daily struggles experienced by women at work.
But what stands in the way remains unconscious bias. It’s touted to be the greatest diversity killer, yet BCG’s study found that most managers and executives don’t think they are biased.
On the flipside, the study found that half of employees don’t believe that their companies have the right mechanisms in place to ensure major decisions such as promotions are free from bias.
Bias is inherently human
To be fair, nobody’s exempt from bias. Balaka Niyazee, gender equality sponsor and VP at P&G Korea shared her personal experience.
Three years ago, Niyazee was a sales leader at P&G Korea and faced many challenging retailer-partners. At one point, she asked the team leads, “why aren’t there enough women staffing the team?”
The leaders, typically men, answered matter-of-factly that the job – getting retailer-partners to work with P&G – “required aggressive selling”.
“We drifted into the comfort of the assumption that indeed, that is true,” Niyazee said. “[I thought] if I had driven the quota and said, ‘no, I want 50% of my team leaders to be women’, it would not be authentic [change] and the male leaders in my team wouldn’t believe in it.”
Recently, when she visited the department as general manager, she saw that there were many more women on the team and one of the critical leads was a woman. She proceeded to ask the sales leader how the transformation took place.
“He said, ‘I want my business to progress and accelerate, so I want to put my best talent in the biggest challenges’,” Niyazee said. “To answer the question on what we are doing to make [D&I] authentic is by helping men and women [leaders] realise that we are not doing this to get to a number.
“Yes, it's important. We need to have a goal and there is no shying away that we have a target – I can tell you that it’s 50% and we have to get there. But getting deeper into it and really understanding why you need value, and why you need diversity of thinking from each and every [team member], that is when true transformation can happen.”
How to combat bias
Many advocate formal anti-bias training to combat something as tricky as unconscious bias. Karl Preissner, leader, global diversity and inclusion at P&G shared with HRD what more can be done.
“What has been a shift for us, or part of the new playbook is really recognising that not leaving all the work to women actually means we need to put effort and intention towards developing men when it comes to gender equality,” he said.
What he meant is to build a truly inclusive workforce, there needs to be greater self-awareness and understanding around the different dynamics at work, and not to harp on “fixing the woman”.
“Sometimes we’re inside the dominant group and sometimes we’re outside the dominant group,” he said. “Sometimes we have cultural patterns of bias that show up – and it’s different for each of us.
“We need to address those and learn how to navigate them. And those are different lessons depending on where you sit in the organisation. What has shifted for us is the recognition [that] we need to explore.
“Sometimes unintentionally – let’s say in the past – we may have looked at [gender inequality] as a woman’s issue. Now we recognise the truth, which is something we all have a stake in and have a way to contribute and develop [a gender-inclusive culture].”