Disrupt the Diversity Status Quo

The statistics are stark, and reflect both a global imbalance and an opportunity to drive improved productivity: Women continue to lag men in overall workforce participation and representation at all workforce levels.

The Human Capital Report, released by the World Economic Forum in partnership with Mercer in 2013, found that only 60 to 70 percent of the eligible female population participates in the global workforce compared with male participation well above 80 percent. This pattern persists across all geographies, developed and developing, and across all age groups.

And while the countries that most effectively leverage women are the most successful — based on standard measures of economic output — trends have not been encouraging: The World Bank recently reported that global labor force participation rates for women ages 15-64 have actually declined over the past two decades.

The story is not likely to improve without significant intervention. Current female hiring, promotion and retention rates are simply insufficient to create gender equality over the next decade.Whiletalent flows will move more women into senior rolesglobally, equity will still not be achieved. Perhaps most striking, progress will stagnate in the United States and Canada unless organizations focus on gender-based equity in promotion opportunity.

These forecasts come from recent Mercer research, which is based on hard data on workforce representation and “internal labor market” flows (e.g., hires, promotions, and terminations) submitted by 164 companies in 28 countries covering 1.7 million employees — including more than 680,000 women.

The report, “When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive,” challenges today’s corporate leadership — especially diversity executives — with finding fresh solutions beyond the traditional leave and flexibility programs long viewed as women-friendly. These programs are associated with unintended consequences. For instance, the absence of leadership engagement on gender equity, manager training on how to steer clear of unconscious bias and effective career coaching to employees taking advantage of such opportunities.

In fact, the research calls for more dynamic approaches to disrupt the corporate inertia — that is, non-traditional solutions beyond flex time and family leave. Diversity leaders need to champion innovative programs that target women’s unique health and financial needs. For example, gender-customized retirement solutions geared toward women’s financial behaviors, attitudes and needs — such as longevity differences between women and men, which impacts the length of time savings need to last and in investing behavior. 

Educational programs geared to promote women’s unique health needs clearly drive an effective employment proposition. And strong programs to promote gender pay equity — especially the alignment of robust, proactive checks on compensation levels annually — are associated with improvements throughout the system, including better levels of female representation.

If anything, the research suggests siloed approach to gender diversity is counter-productive. Analysis of the data shows that organizations that focus on holistic approaches to support female talent have more comparable talent flows for both genders than those that do not.

Such a broad focus should include consideration of compensation and benefits but can only be optimally configured through a disciplined, statistical review of an organization’s own employment data. This data might show the value of supervisory roles, the necessity of increased internal mobility or the need to eliminate bias in performance review processes. 

Different organizations will inevitably be at different stages when it comes to managing gender diversity and reaping its benefits. But diversity executives should consider a basic process for ensuring gender diversity, consisting of the following steps:

1. Admit there is a problem and an opportunity. Put the tough questions on the table, be transparent, and gather the data necessary to assess both issues and opportunities.

2. Base a gender diversity strategy and priorities on robust workforce analytics. Use an evidence-based approach to identify and drill down into the unique drivers of and barriers to gender equality in your organization.

3. Align diversity strategy with talent strategy. Ensure that the strategy for improving gender diversity doesn’t run counter to the underlying approach to managing talent, including whether the organization tends to “build” or “buy” talent.

4. Implement new programs and benefits only in the context of an enabling environment. Foster an organizational culture that is comfortable with different employees contributing to the overall enterprise in different ways and that actively manages women so they effectively utilize available programs and benefits in their overall career development.

5. Broaden your understanding of what it takes to support women. Look beyond typical programs when considering how best to support and enable all talent. For example, gender-specific programs focused on either health or financial wellness, neither of which is a common practice, are clearly differentiators that improve diversity.

6. Collaborate with other stakeholders in the macro environment to affect the female talent pipeline. Position the organization for success by taking a macro-system approach to collaborate with other key stakeholders that can influence the supply of female talent, including schools, governments, public health organizations, industry groups and NGOs.

Ultimately,organizations need a mix of different skills for business success and must look to a diverse workforce to access those skills. But achieving true, dynamic gender diversity takes more than having a standard diversity policy and traditional programs. It calls for disruption of the status quo through proactive management, programs that acknowledge differences by gender and collaboration among various stakeholders within, and beyond, the organization.