This year’s theme is about promoting gender equality for men and women, so I wanted to take the opportunity to champion the positive impact that lots of men are having in helping to close the gender divide and increase diversity in the workplace.
Whilst there is still a long way to go until a genuine balance has been reached, there are plenty of industries, sectors and businesses that have started shaking up a culture that was too traditional and where boardrooms were almost exclusively dominated by men. It is appropriate therefore to be celebrating those around the table who have enabled cultures to change and who have championed diversity and inclusion, whether that be of the sexes, of race or of social backgrounds.
Of course, there are many strong female leaders who have played a major role in driving change; I know plenty who have trail blazed their way through male dominated sectors to become influential figureheads in their own right. It is far easier for them to do so though in a company where there is a culture that enables it. A study by US based consulting firm BSG in 2017, polled over 200,000 workers in large institutions worldwide to look at the issue of the Gender Ambition Gap. It found that women in companies that have made gender diversity part of its company culture, have a greater ambition to climb the career ladder.
Fostering an inclusive culture takes inclusive leaders to instil it from the top down. The Employer’s Network for Equality and Inclusion states that to be an inclusive leader, “you need to be aware of your own biases and preferences and actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision-making”.
We need inclusive leaders who override unconscious bias when engaging with colleagues and when making business decisions. An effective inclusive leader is someone who understands that they have the power to influence and have the guts to step forward and actively challenge others when they see behaviour that undermines the push for gender balance, equality and diversity. This could be committing to having diverse representation at meetings and ensuring all voices are heard, calling out inappropriate behaviour others see as ‘banter’, or contesting decisions on who to promote or give project leads to if they think someone’s credentials are being unfairly dismissed because of an unconscious bias. They put their own comfort on the line by challenging others, avoiding assumptions and by trying to change the ingrained patterns of behaviour from other colleagues.
Blake Irving, former CEO of Go Daddy, was motivated by the untimely death of his sister and made it a personal mission to change the culture of the brand. He committed to creating a truly inclusive workplace and Go Daddy is now recognised as one of the best places to work for women in tech.
I have attended many conferences and seminars that have been themed around female leadership and celebrating women in business. I am always curious as to why in most cases men usually make up less than 10 percent of the attendees of these events and an even smaller percentage of speakers on panels.
I’ve no doubt that the men who do go to these events and put themselves in a position to be part of the debate around diversity and gender bias are the ones who are actively pushing for cultural changes in their own organisations. I would however like to see a greater variety in the role models we are presented with during these debates. As well as hearing from a CEO who has backed diversity, women and men need to be hearing more stories from the men who take parental leave whilst their partners continue to advance their careers, or the men who can talk openly about shared caring responsibilities in the home and working flexible hours to fit in with family routines. It is the men who normalise the flipping of traditional assumptions who can make the biggest difference in shifting the gender balance culture.
Statistics from the 30% Club – an international membership organisation with a global mission to reach at least 30% representation of all women on all boards and C-suites globally – show that as of July 2021 that the vast majority of FTSA 100, 250 and 350 businesses have achieved over 30%. However, they also report that 192 of the UK’s biggest listed companies still have all-male executive committees sitting above those boards.
There is a strong business case for both gender diversity and ethnic and culture diversity in corporate leadership. Diverse companies are more likely than ever to outperform less diverse competitors on profitability. According to research by McKinsey in 2019, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability compared to companies in the fourth quartile. This is a trend that has risen year on year, with it up from 21 percent in 2017 and 15 percent in 2014.
There are plenty of great examples where the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest employers have publicly made a stand for gender equality and greater diversity of its leadership team. For example, Ian Durant, the chairman of Greggs and a member of the 30% Club has very publicly pushed the gender balance agenda over the years. As a result, almost 50% of the high street bakery’s board are women and it runs a Women’s Development Programme to help more high-potential women to the top.
Likewise, there are excellent examples of businesses that have made a stand to put in place initiatives that make a practical difference to enabling women to progress their careers, such as the provision of on-site childcare. Led by CEO Simon Wolfson, retailer Next owns its own on-site nursery at its headquarters in Leicester which it opened in 2013 and makes available to employees as part of their benefits package.
Diversity, inclusion and gender equality is something that can only be truly achieved once a more diverse group of leaders commit to making it happen. So, let’s do for men what we do for women on International Women’s Day and celebrate those who are doing something special, however big or small, to make the places we work more inclusive.
Oona Collins is a leadership consultant and coach who works with a mix of SME founders and board level directors of global organisations. She is the founder of Potential Plus International (www.potentialplusinternational.com) and has worked with senior directors and teams at global organisations including Knight Frank, LaSalle, Legal & General, RBS, NatWest Markets, Virgin Atlantic and AON, among many others.