Gender Diversity: Still a Long Way From Equality

14/04/2015 12:43 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

In recent weeks, we have celebrated International Women's Day and mused over Lord Davies' latest 'Women on Boards' report. 'Women in the workplace' has been a topic right at the top of the global agenda. Certainly, governments, businesses and individuals have worked hard to equalise the workplace gender balance, and ensure that women have the same access to the same responsibilities, privileges and executive roles as their male counterparts. Lord Davies' report revealed that female representation at senior business levels has now reached 23.5% - almost double its level four years ago. However, it is clear that the job is far from finished and more still needs to be done.

Much has been said over the last 2-3 years about the need for businesses to achieve a better balance of gender equality throughout their workforces, including in senior executive and Board level roles. Certain countries, such as Norway, have gone as far as passing legislation that requires businesses to achieve a certain ratio in the Boardroom. Other countries have adopted a voluntary (but required) approach and that is beginning to extend deeper into the executive ranks. But, several years into this agenda, have we reached equality? Recent evidence suggests that while progress has been made, we are still a long way from proper equality. Worse, in many cases the current inequality that exists today may not even be recognised.

My business operates all around the world, so building a diverse workforce on such an international stage requires diversity to be a part of our corporate DNA if we are to get the best team in every single one of our operations globally. Shutting out any specific section of society, consciously or subconsciously, simply means we will build a suboptimal business if we do not take the very best people to work for us, regardless of gender or background. I believe in meritocracy, and that's why I don't believe that legally enforced quotas are necessarily the right way to go if they dilute our own mantra of having the very best person in each role. Coincidentally, our global workforce is approximately 50:50 between males and females, but that wasn't delivered by artificial design. It was achieved by following our meritocracy guidelines. However, a great many organisations are nowhere near as equal and the reasons why are many and varied. Yet as business leaders, where a gap still exists, we have to ask ourselves why that is so and recognise the disadvantage this may be creating for us, because I am certain that businesses with an unequal gender mix are missing out.

'I don't see what the problem is'

While a lot of good work has been done to move this issue forward, it's my experience that many leaders still do not fully recognise the gender diversity challenges that their organisations face. However, little hard data existed to validate this opinion. Hence, ahead of International Women's Day on 8 March, my business ran a Global Gender Diversity Survey, where we asked nearly 6,000 people worldwide about their views on equality in the workplace.

The responses were illuminating and possibly point to the real issues why progress has been slow and inconsistent. 45% of the women surveyed felt that equally capable male and female colleagues are not rewarded in an equal manner, whereas only 18% of the men surveyed felt inequality in pay and promotion existed. Furthermore, 48% of women do not believe that the same career opportunities are available to all, regardless of gender. Only 21% of men feel the same.

There we have it. 8/10 men think that things are already equal from a pay and opportunity standpoint. Only around 5/10 of women think things are now equalised. Interestingly, statistics in the UK show that most senior roles in business are still occupied by men. So if 80% of them think equality issues have now been fixed, as this data implies, no wonder that progress is so slow. And its unlikely to progress much further if those in power think the job has been completed. What is to be done ?

High profile champions can make a difference

Fortunately, there are some very large and high profile organisations that recognise the diversity and equality challenges they face and are taking steps to address them. Such champions include Facebook; they appointed a Global Head of Diversity in September 2013. In the engineering world, one where inequality has historically been high as so few women choose that profession, Lockheed Martin and Intel have recognised that a diverse workforce can unlock a unique source of creativity and competitive advantage. Their solutions have been to appoint senior level champions for diversity that are well resourced, in order to position their brands as employers that attract the best talent. That talent then becomes both a beacon for further equality and a source of innovation and competitive advantage.

Quotas are counterproductive

In recognising that diversity and gender equality within organisations requires addressing, some policymakers are trying to legislate for change. The problem the lawmakers fail to recognise is that legislation does not inspire and lead senior management towards change. It forces management to address symptoms as opposed to underlying causes. In fact there is a strong argument, often put forward by women, that it actually devalues the very principles that equality based on meritocracy represents. Filling quotas can create the perception that promoting the diversity agenda is a negative step, not one designed to tap into a better workforce. That has to be wrong.

Flexibility and culture change are the solutions

However, our research shows that there are more constructive solutions. According to 44% of survey respondents, flexible working and changes to company culture will have the greatest impact on improving gender diversity in the workplace. As our workforces are forced to become more diverse due to issues such as demographic shifts, developing varied working practices that are mutually beneficial to employer and employees will allow an organisation to appeal to a greater variety of workers, young and old, male and female.

With this approach, I believe we will find the answer to greater equality between sexes, ages and a multitude of demographics. In turn, this will enable businesses to build competitive advantage via a more skilled and motivated workforce. After all, it makes good business sense to have access to a bigger and better pool of employees.

The detailed results of the Hays Global Gender Diversity Survey 2015 can be found here.