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Companies that are making progress on gender equality and diversity have several things in common. It’s worth knowing what these are, because many organisations want to do the right thing, but may not be sure exactly what to do to achieve progress.
We’ve summarised the top six characteristics that companies with a higher than average and growing representation of women in leadership roles have in common. These characteristics are based on a 2017 report by the Business Council of Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and McKinsey, which analysed workplace gender reporting data and conducted over 40 interviews in companies with a higher than average representation of women in leadership roles. It might seem like a pipe dream for some, but decision-makers in any business can influence change for the better by adopting these practices.
In organisations where progress is being made, the business case for gender equality, diversity and inclusion is regularly promoted. Leaders talk about the connection between greater diversity – of thinking and background – with improved performance (including relevant areas such as safety and reflecting customer demographics).
In progressive organisations, leaders form teams with talent from different backgrounds and different experiences. They also may take a stand on equality, like asking for gender balance on speaker panels, or requesting suppliers have strong diversity commitments. Leaders actively encourage diversity of thinking, promote inclusive leadership behaviours in meetings and everyday interactions, speak out against harassment, and challenge inappropriate behaviours. Leaders are also aware of the potential impact of unconscious gender biases on decision-making (particularly recruitment and assessment decisions), and challenge stereotypes and other biases that inhibit diversity.
Progressive companies do their part to normalise flexible work for men and women, through education and by having regular conversations to encourage employees to take up flexible work. Flexibility is encouraged on a ‘reason-neutral’ basis to avoid automatic, outdated assumptions that flexibility is only for certain groups, such as working mothers. Team members have access to tools (such as laptops, conference dial-ins, video-conferencing) to help people work flexibly. Those on parental leave or returning to work access keep in touch programs, coaching and networks for new parents, as well as flexible work arrangements.
To encourage greater gender diversity in leadership positions, senior leaders identify and sponsor talented women across a broad range of roles to prepare them for senior opportunities. For women to progress, it makes a big difference when a line leader has actively advocated for them or given them access to a wide range of stretch roles. Women are also encouraged to get operational experience and leadership exposure early in their careers, and sponsorship programs are set up to support culturally diverse talent.
In progressive organisations, there is often visible evidence of their commitment to gender equality and diversity. This could include the provision of prayer rooms, breastfeeding rooms, as well as the redesign of physical requirements of certain roles to make them more inclusive. Recruitment partners may also be briefed on the business’ expectation for diversity in sourcing candidates. The company’s talent management policies are refreshed regularly to reduce the potential for unconscious bias and actively promote diversity.
Reinforcement mechanisms, such as targets or quotas to achieve gender balance and diversity in leadership, are tracked regularly in leading companies. Leaders are held accountable for meeting them, with achievement of diversity targets part of executive remuneration scorecards. Sound like the dream organisation? Perhaps, but we know these are the practices that characterise companies making the most progress now. They’re also the companies poaching the top candidates and scoring better commercial results.
Dr Katie Spearritt is co-founder of the Future Women Academy. If you enjoyed this article, visit the Future Women Academy to find out more about corporate memberships so you can access a range of articles, podcasts, toolkits and consultations to foster more inclusive, diverse workplaces.
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