How to deliver positive gender ratio changes in a year

McKinsey's analysis of the organisations pursuing gender diversity strategies shows that most are failing to achieve the progress they wanted. This means that they are either doing the wrong things or that they are being poorly implemented. We now have over 10 years of widespread experience of businesses trying to deliver gender balance and learning the lessons about what does and does not work. So if you haven't embarked on your gender diversity journey, the good news is that your opportunity is to get it right first time.

This article will introduce you to the critical components which enable organisations who strategically and financially commit to accessing the benefits of delivering gender balance to start reaping the rewards within a year

Assess your performance to date and challenge assumptions with facts

It’s easy to believe there are no problems when you don’t experience them directly or when you make assumptions about the trends that you see without directly seeking the facts about the causes.

“Many of the firm’s senior partners didn’t see the exodus of women as a problem, or at least it wasn’t our problem. We assumed that women were leaving to have children and that we were doing everything possible to retain women. How wrong we were and how far we’ve come.

Interviews explained why. Most weren’t leaving to have children; they had weighed up their options in Deloitte’s male-dominated culture and found them wanting.

Today, [8 years into a comprehensive on-going strategic change programme] we have the highest proportion of women partners in the Big Five, we have saved $250million in hiring and training and this has enabled Deloitte to grow faster than any other professional service company in the last few years”.

Douglas M McCracken, Former CEO Deloitte Consulting. “Winning the Talent War for Women: Sometimes it takes a revolution” Harvard Business Review on Managing Diversity

So you need to find out if you have issues recruiting, retaining and applying your female talent and you need to prioritise the most significant pinch points within your immediate planning horizon:

Areas you will need to assess include:

  • Recruitment in to all levels and functions. What’s the gender balance?
  • Retention – if you are losing women faster than men, do you know why? Are you making the sort of assumptions made Deloitte?
  • Progression – what’s the gender balance in promotions – and by type of work? Who is getting the roles and assignments which are the most interesting and high profile and most likely to lead to progression and higher levels of job satisfaction?
  • Leadership. What are the ratios at project, functional leadership, partnership or non-exec and exec levels?

Get really clear on the opportunity costs of not taking action. Then articulate multi-layered benefits from pioneering change

The case for diversity must be clearly articulated by the company’s leadership. And there is no shortage of insight available to help you articulate the opportunity costs, and indeed, risks to your business of limiting access to, and the application of talent.

  • The bottom line. McKinsey, Catalyst, Goldman Sachs, Deloitte and Credit Suisse are the most high profile commercial organisations to analyse and quantify the strategically significant difference that having both gender-balance in leadership and in the workforce makes at a company and country (GDP) level.  (see How to Make the Winning Case for Gender Diversity)
  • Competitive advantage. The financial case and the competitive case are the same. You cannot deliver optimum shareholder and stakeholder value if you do not source from and apply the best talent
  • Innovation success and team (virtual and real) intelligence have specifically been shown to be higher with complete 50:50 gender balance
  • Reputation. External and internal reputation is affected by a company’s cultural outlook and actions regarding female talent which can affect sales (when purchasing organisations increasing look for evidence of delivering diversity), recruitment and engagement – and therefore business performance.

Put your money where your mouth is - invest

Paying lip service will be apparent and will backfire and when you are forced (by market issues or regulation) to implement gender diversity it will be very, very much harder.

So, like most of the strategies that succeed best, you must be bold, decisive, leadership-led and commit resources – people, time and money - to securing the changes that will deliver the benefits you have now articulated. It’s a case of put up or shut up.

However, the importance of prioritising pinch points and opportunities that enables you to deliver quick and significant wins which will demonstrate return on investment and justify the rest of the plan (Years 2 and 3). It’s critical not to spread resources too thinly. You must target the priority communities, functions, hierarchical levels to prove the case then go back for more.

Commit to implementation strategies & targets with teeth - avoid platitudes

Words on a website or at a conference or a few grand on a women's network will do nothing and but create dissatisfaction by over-promising and under-delivering. 

The four key communities for action are:

  • Leadership

The Leadership team must own, communicate and cascade the case for change and the related objectives and measures from top to bottom and side to side and model the change they wish to see.  Budgets must be assigned to support the achievement of targets with indicated investment priorities and expected ROI or impact on investment.

The leadership must themselves be accountable for performance and must ensure that accountability is also cascaded making clear that success or failure to meet these targets carries the same implications as succeeding or failing to meet any other targets.

  • HR

Poor old HR are often expected to own and drive ‘worthy’ stuff like diversity compliance. However, this is the role of the senior leadership team as a strategic imperative for the business. HR are the strategic advisors and then implementers in their specialist areas of operation (policies, practices, monitoring measuring and reporting). As experts in these areas they will succeed but all their best efforts will be frustrated if they are expected to do this in isolation.

  • Women

Ironically this group is can be the hardest to engage in the process. This is usually because initiatives are badly positioned. Talking about addressing women’s issues and then expecting women to openly sign up to stuff is asking them to say ‘yep, I’m a problem’. Whereas the reality that needs to be clearly and consistently communicated (to everyone) is that this is about the welfare and future of the business and you want and need your female talent to help to deliver your vision

Do it properly and do it strategically. Focus first on the priority communities (cohorts) identified in your initial assessment and have a full rationalised plan for rolling out development support across other communities.

A serious programme for this pivotal community is likely to include:

  • Coaching for emerging leaders and high potentials with targeted performance and progression outcomes. But, be clear that high potential women are often harder to spot because they are less likely to self promote and less likely to be heard or recognised by line managers and leaders. So challenge your assumptions about where the talent lies and about who wants to get on by having direct conversations.
  • A body of senior sponsors should be identified to work with and champion individuals in specific cohorts.
  • Short term, fast start workshops delivered by external experts can provide insights and strategies to indicate actions that enable individuals to get going without waiting for years in a queue for more in-depth development suport
  • Strategic development programmes should become part of women’s journey in your organisations (just as unconscious bias / behavioural economics is for all managers and leaders). In the first year you may only be able to run one or two

Targeted coaching, sponsorship and fast start workshops will deliver measurable and visible results rapidly. However, there is a watch-out - you must also be prepared for women to leave if leaders haven’t communicated and visibly delivered the other elements of the change programme, including modelling the change.

  • The ‘sticky middle’ (managers resistant to change they feel threatened by)

When the leadership want it; HR have put in recruitment & progression processes; and women are being given the wherewithal to negotiate the cultural challenges and unconscious bias they encounter, change programmes often still fail because of day-to-day barriers put up typically by middle managers. These behavioural barriers have to be broken down within the context of the goals of the organisation and the opportunities for all to benefit from a successfully making positive change.

You can identify where you are likely to have problems by carrying out simple, cost –light, but powerful assessments of unconscious bias of all managers responsible for people, profit and performance. Individuals should not be singled out for assessment and nor should gender be the single dimension measured.

This same community should all participate in unconscious bias / behavioural economics awareness and training workshops. This is so that they can understand and experience the prevalence and impact of flawed decision in a business driven by human assumptions and then looking specifically at what this means in terms of female talent? 

Individuals whose assessments show that their biases will translate into behaviour which will undermine the performance of communities their bias affects negatively must be given expert coaching support to help them work towards managing and minimising these behaviours.

Making it happen

Recognise where your strengths and expertise lie and call in experts to do well and right first what you currently can’t. The keys areas to consider this external support are:

  • Change programme definition and design
  • Current performance assessment stages – gender pinch points & unconscious bias
  • Coaching and training – women and unconscious bias / behavioural economics workshops.


I’m Diana Parkes, founder of The Women’s Sat Nav to Success Ltd., contact me to talk about making a fast start or to explore any of these areas and the implications for your business.