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It’s time to get a grip on gender equality

When asked to write an article on the purpose of gender equality for global brands, I had to pause and ask myself why. After all, you already know that the case for gender equality is clear.
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You are intelligent business leaders so you don’t need any more of the rational arguments like the fact that brands with a more diverse workforce and more senior women outperform brands without. Both McKinsey and Credit Suisse document substantially higher return on equity, increase in earnings, lower gearing and better average growth in companies with gender diverse boards.

Diversity of thought promotes creativity, which leads to greater innovation and better problem solving. And of course you know that half the world is female and therefore half of your customers, clients, and investors are women and so clearly it would be helpful to better understand and relate to them. Surely I need not mention the race for talent and the fact that the discerning millennial will ask you if you are worthy of their consideration – just ask any despondent energy or tech company HR director competing for female engineers.

No, you don’t need all of those rational arguments, because you know it and the case is quite clear. So why are firms lagging behind when it comes to hiring, retaining and promoting 50 per cent of their talent? Why are trading floors, R&D labs and C-suites still mono-cultures when we know that multi-culture makes for a better business?

Having just returned from New York and the UN Commission on the Status of Women, I am still overwhelmed by this conundrum. All week I heard from business leaders like McKinsey, EY, L’Oréal or Deloitte; leaders like Justin Trudeau (who, when asked why 50 per cent of his cabinet were women, famously said, “because it is 2015”!) and Ban Ki Moon who is deftly steering the world to understand that gender equality is a social, political and economic necessity. All agreed that gender equality, indeed parity, not only makes sense, but is essential to create better businesses, better economies and a better world.

Some brands know this and are leading the way to new and effective business models. All we need do is look to Unilever which has been mobilising diversity and inclusion programmes to optimise company performance and deliver on an ambitious long-term growth strategy. When successful, this will not only maximise shareholders’ investments but will cement the company’s position as a corporate force for good. Employees are happy and proud to work for such a values-led business; customers are happy – as every consumer of Dove appreciates recognition of her inner beauty; and investors are happy as the company continues to enter and grow new markets with new business models that create sustainable benefits.

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For other brands it is about changing accepted models for business success. Dell, with direction from boss Michael Dell, knew that it had to buck the trend of male-dominated tech companies. Dell now spearheads diversity and believes that diversity encourages broader thinking and inspires innovation. This has led to major investments in female entrepreneurs through the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, which showcases, encourages and promotes female entrepreneurs from every sector around the world. And is it better for business – you bet it is!

New commitments and proven success can be found in virtually every sector that we’ve surveyed and success is real in soft and hard measures. So why aren’t brands going beyond lip service or PR campaigns riding on the gender bandwagon? I guess it is because there is no quick fix. It is complex and requires a strategic business approach. Traditional methods were all about “fixing the women” with training programs or women’s networks, but of course it is not about fixing the women, or even about simply fixing the men. It is about culture and bias, unconscious and conscious, and it is about changing outdated business and work models.

As Josh Levs, author of “All In”, commented at this week’s UN meetings, “the work culture of today is based on the thinking of the Madmen era”. The world has moved on, but sadly many of our hierarchical, male-dominated structures have not. And that is as true for the new entrepreneurial tech start-ups as for traditional manufacturing businesses.

No one really wants to create a less effective, less successful dinosaur of a company, but it is difficult to get beyond intention to create real change. In my experience, change only happens when you are able to move from awareness and intention, to deeper understanding, commitment and finally sustained and continuous action. No, it is not about setting up a women’s network or appointing a new diversity and inclusion department. 

 You see, while these things may be important, it is not about initiatives. It is about understanding that gender equality in the workplace is fundamental to your business success and recognising that it needs to cut across departments or divisions, rise above individual initiatives or campaigns and fundamentally live within your culture. It is about strategy, visibility and action. You need to demonstrate that it is a top priority – throughout the business. Championed in the C-suite with business leaders giving their personal commitment, and implemented through senior and the often challenging middle management levels.

This may mean literally rethinking old models of workplace practices from implementing blind recruitment processes in order to truly level the playing field through to performance measurement that includes a manager’s success in promoting diverse teams. Measurement is important as clearly the effectiveness of policies, programs and communications needs to be understood. You will need to continuously track key metrics and drive accountability to deliver real change. But the results will be worth the journey.

Laura Haynes is founder and chairman of Appetite, a consulting firm that assists organisations to become purposeful and more successful businesses.

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