Most of the Talent
22 December 2009 Alison Maitland
In an extract from their new book, Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of our Next Economic Revolution, authors Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland reveal how corporates can seize sustainable competitive advantage by taking gender seriously.
A French industrial company decided to examine its poor record on recruiting and retaining women. It invited all its human resources directors to a seminar. They were handed a two-page list of job openings, taken from their internal jobs website, and asked to check it for gender bias.
The 16 men and six women scanned the pages and shook their heads. They could see nothing that would offend. Of the 20 jobs listed, all but one began by describing the ideal candidate as, "He will be...".
The exception was what brought the point home. It was for a secretarial post and began with the words, "She will be...".
The HR experts were doubly shocked. They found it hard to believe the ads had been written that way, and were dismayed that not one of them had even noticed, despite longstanding legislation in the European Union outlawing sex discrimination.
The shock galvanised the company into action. It set itself a target to recruit 40% women.
Sometimes, a rude awakening is required for companies to start taking serious action on gender. Their motive for looking at the issue in the first place is usually self-interest rather than a desire to achieve gender parity for its own sake.
Today, most companies have some sort of policy on gender or are thinking of having one, driven by the need to be seen as 'equal' or 'diverse' or not to be missing out on the talent.
As the vast baby boom generation begins to retire (60-plus years after the men came home to their wives from the Second World War), the talent wars that the McKinsey consultants started writing about in the late 1990s are still with us, even in bad economic times.
In some industries – such as defence, oil and gas, IT and healthcare – skills shortages have already caused serious problems.
Competition for valuable skills and experience remains intense. Before the downturn, 75% of senior human resources managers around the world said that attracting and retaining talent was their top priority, while 62% were concerned about talent shortages in their companies (The Economist, 2006).
Even in the economically grim months of late 2008, the biggest concerns of organisations around the world included recruiting and retaining key employees, according to a Hay Group survey.
"While employees fear losing their jobs, organisations fear the loss of top talent and critical skills," stated the Hay Group Global Employee Pay and Staffing Survey, 2008.
Despite these concerns, much of the business world seems to have difficulty recognising that one of the most sweeping and effective solutions is right there, staring it in the face: making better use of women's potential.
Although we would not necessarily equate the female sex with all the attributes of a pachyderm, the situation is akin to that of the 'elephant in the room', the big truth that people prefer to ignore. The Economist dedicated a special survey to the subject of talent in its 7 October 2006 issue. Curiously, women were not mentioned as a solution.
Opportunities and benefits
The challenge is often presented primarily as one of matching mobile capital with a mobile workforce. Yet making the most of female brainpower represents an opportunity to maximise growth without the social upheavals, real or imagined, that nations fear will accompany the mass migration of people. Doing so will benefit economies, companies and the boards that run them.
As research by Goldman Sachs points out, gender equality in the labour force could boost gross domestic product by as much as 9% in the US, 13% in the Eurozone and 16% in Japan (Daly, 2007). Goldman’s Kevin Daly says that Scandinavia’s experience suggests such an outcome is achievable, "given the right government policies and a wide cultural acceptance of equal female employment".
Closing the gap between male and female labour participation would help address the urgent problem of pension sustainability, Daly notes. Increasing employment among people of working age would reduce the dependency ratio, the ratio of retired people to workers. Old-age dependency is most worrying in countries such as Japan and Italy, which have ageing populations, low female employment and low fertility rates.
Women now make up a majority (57%) of university graduates across OECD countries (Vincent-Lancrin, 2008). Countries and companies that enable women to reach their full potential at work will reap the rewards of girls' educational attainment.
Among the general population aged 25 to 34 years, a third of women, on average, have tertiary education, compared with 28% of men (OECD, 2006). In Europe, women now earn 59% of university diplomas (EU, 2007) and 61% of PhD degrees (EU, 2006).
Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of our Next Economic Revolution
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland
John Wiley & Sons Ltd