Gender diversity: Female business leaders explain the changes they want to see

'The biggest challenge is retention and promotion'

Say the words “gender diversity” to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the UK-based global gender consulting firm 20-first, and expect her to take a deep breath. “Gender diversity is an oxymoron because only two genders exist,” she explains. 

The other reason gender balance should not be framed as a diversity issue, she says, is that there’s no shortage of women per se, with many sectors employing more women than men. “The issue isn’t recruitment – it’s retention and promotion,” she says. “Getting women into leadership remains the biggest challenge.”

The companies that have been most successful in this area, she says, are those that it as a strategic business opportunity, not those that see it as a diversity problem. “The good news here is that while, up to now, the accountability for lack of women at the top has largely rested in diversity teams or women’s networks, more and more leadership teams are now taking it on.”

Mind you, she adds, in many cases they’ve had no choice. “When you recruit more than 50 per cent of women at the bottom, the time acceptability of not having any women in your senior team is reducing every year. Plus, it’s such a waste of money and development and time.”

To help solve the problem, Wittenberg-Cox would like to see three changes. The first is a greater focus on leadership skills. “People spend decades being trained about working across nationalities. It takes knowledge, skills and understanding to work across genders too.” The second change is a culture shift “away from the boys’ club, locker-room mentality.” And the third is systematic adaptations. “In other words, do the systems we have in place reflect the goals we have around balance – everything from parental leave to the flexibility of where and when people work, and especially the flexibility of career cycle management?”

But let’s not frame these as “women’s issues”, pleads Roxanne Hobbs, founder of the Hobbs Consultancy. “I spend a lot of my time urging leaders to get behind the business case for a more inclusive working environment for everyone. Inclusivity shouldn’t be about cherry-picking one group for success – it’s about removing the barriers to success for everyone.”

And let’s make sure the impetus isn’t lost, adds Fiona Hathorn, MD of Women on Boards UK. “Inclusive cultures need to be created and nurtured. They don’t just happen,” she explains, adding that people need to see inclusive cultures as being about profits, not tick-box exercises. “I believe there is a need to ensure individuals fully understand why their teams perform better if they reflect their customers, which means giving team leaders evidenced-based research and spending time and money training them.”

Hathorn would also like to see middle managers (“the troops of any organisation”) realising that targets (not quotas) are good business management. “If we have them for paperclips, costs, profits and capital investments, why not talent? What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets done.”

She thinks there’s also a need for investor engagement. “Currently, the investment management community doesn’t care. Why? Because it is still male-dominated with no data or spotlight on the sector, and as a consequence not much change is happening with regard to diversity and inclusion, as used to be the case for FTSE boards.”

While legislation on gender in the workplace is fairly robust, Wittenberg-Cox wants to see greater transparency. “If companies had to publish gender statistics in a visible way, I think we’d see much more change, because the smart female talent would naturally gravitate towards these companies, forcing others to also take action. It’s already happening in a couple of countries, including Australia,” she says.

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