Gender Balancing for Real

13 July 2010 Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

It's time for CEOs to get serious about sex, says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, author of the new book 'How Women Mean Business'. The CEO of 20-first says that if companies what to launch successful gender balancing initiatives, they need to forget the tick-the-box exercises and focus on results.

Companies around the world are rolling out gender initiatives under the multiple pressures of talent issues, demographics and customer responsiveness. When they launch these programmes, they usually jump straight into an action plan, complete with targets. Too often, they find that a few years later, nothing has actually changed.

Instead, they should step back and start smart by conducting a complete audit. There are three simple questions to answer: where are you? What have you done? And, finally, what is going on?

The objective of the Audit is to provide a complete, fact-based overview of the gender balance opportunities and challenges facing the company, which can then be submitted to the executive committee for debate and action planning.

Collecting relevant metrics does not have to be a mammoth exercise. While many consulting companies propose huge surveys to collect vast amounts of data, what's more important when going through this phase is to focus on a few key metrics that will highlight the major issues. Focus on representative data to facilitate a meaningful debate on the question: is there a business case for gender balance and, if so, what is it?

Building the big picture: get the numbers

All gender balance Audits should start with a quantitative survey bringing together the data that will help the company understand its starting point better. Get a snapshot of how the gender balance has changed over the previous few years, if the numbers exist. This tells the company whether or not there has been any recent evolution in the balance. Managers, for whatever reason, often believe that things are improving organically. Data can help challenge or validate such assumptions.

"Collecting relevant metrics does not have to be a mammoth task."

Comparative statistics on recruitment may reveal that the organisation is not attracting talent in a gender balanced way. Many companies in traditionally male-dominated sectors find that they have a very small percentage of women at entry level. Companies in retail, cosmetics, and luxury sectors are beginning to find that they have too few men at entry level. Get a specific measure of the gender balance at entry level and check if it is evolving at all.

Retention is also a major gender issue for many companies. Leaders need to understand the degree – and cost – of staff turnover and at what grade levels and age groups talented men and women have been leaving the company. The data will show at which points in the career pipeline women start to leave in greater numbers than men, and whether the change gets worse at higher job grades or older age groups, or is limited to a specific life phase. Most companies find that more women than men exit in their 30s.

Companies should review how effectively they are developing and promoting some form of gender balance in their leadership teams. Evaluate if there is a sudden drop in the gender mix at a particular grade level. Most companies would like to see the trend lines of these charts flatten out so the entry-level gender mix for managers stays fairly constant over time.

Attitudes and mindsets

The most impactful part of the audit is often the qualitative work. These investigations into what male and female managers really think about gender as a business issue reveals how ready the organisation is for this sort of initiative and why similar efforts may not have succeeded in the past.

"Pre-empt the misperception that gender initiatives are just about women by collecting data about both sexes."

Many companies unthinkingly only collect and present data on or about female employees. Such an approach risks limiting the analysis to a female-only perspective, and neglects the role that managers play in achieving gender balance. It can also lead to the impression that the company is concerned exclusively with the situation of women in the organisation. Pre-empt the common misperception that gender initiatives are just about women by collecting and comparing data about both sexes.

To get a fast and easy insight into where each manager stands, use a simple mapping tool which places interviewees into one of three categories: Progressive, Patient, and Plodding.

Progressives have a clear sense of the need for change in gender and are probably searching for the best way to tackle the issue. People in the Patient group are receptive to the idea of gender balance but do not feel any sense of urgency to make change. The third group of Plodders contains the sceptics and those completely unaware of the issue.

Dealing with history

Many companies have years, if not decades, of history on the gender issue. Get some accountability on the efforts, investments, and return to date. Sometimes it is easier to start a gender initiative with a clean slate. This is particularly true in Latin America, Europe and Asia, where companies do not have the same history on gender that North American companies do. Many companies now launching gender initiatives worry they are a bit late on the topic, but they have the advantage of being able to leapfrog approaches that did not work out satisfactorily.

Do not underestimate the imprint made by past company efforts. Many women will have seen past initiatives come and go - most of them failing to deliver on their promises - and will be understandably sceptical. Some will want to distance themselves from any new programme. Men, typically, will think the issue has little to do with them. Most companies need to demonstrate why things will be different this time round.

Going external: measuring your customer gender balance

The issue of markets rarely gets the attention it deserves in gender balancing initiatives, particularly in Europe and Asia. Women are making the majority of the purchasing decisions in many sectors globally, but many companies have not updated their marketing, customer systems and thinking accordingly.

"It is critical to survey your customer base – male and female."

Gender initiatives, often run by HR, tend to focus primarily on internal talent issues. This may turn out to be the right priority for some companies, but an effective audit needs as wide a snapshot of the gender balance issue and its implications as possible. How well is your organisation reaching female and male customers, clients and end-users, and are there significant differences and opportunities that lie in any of the gaps?

It is critical to survey representatives of your customer base – male and female. This will give an idea of the possible gaps between the marketing and sales strategies and women customers. Many companies fail to analyse their female customers, often because they simply assume they have the same attitudes and shopping patterns as their male customers or because they have failed to fully integrate the modern reality that women are the majority of consumers into their processes, systems and thinking.

So what?

You now know where both the opportunities and the obstacles lie. The company is ready to start a productive, fact-based discussion among its leadership team. What priority, urgency and objectives will they assign to gender balance? Ideally, gender will be seen as a lever to other key corporate change initiatives and communicated as such.

The next step is to make sure that managers have the awareness needed to implement the resulting action plan and that they are also directly accountable for the results. All the rest is just window dressing. Companies have much to gain from better gender balance and a growing number of stakeholders will be holding them to account. It's time for CEOs to get serious about sex.

The four recommended phases that businesses can follow to establish effective gender balancing initiatives.
Businesses need to monitor how the gender balance fluctuates with age, job grade and life phase.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20-first and author of HOW Women mean business.