The board says take action on gender diversity


So you’ve been handed the poison chalice. The board has spoken – they want to take action on gender diversity - and now you have to respond. Read this before you do.

Don't just do something, Stand there!

The opportunity to fail has been grasped by many organisations already and in doing so they’ve made it much harder to succeed when they have to try again. So before you take a swift look around at what other organisations appear to be doing or to have done in order to follow their ‘lead’, stop. There are a number of critical steps you must take for the sake of you and your organisation’s reputation and the organisation’s future prosperity.

Find out why

You have been given the board’s direction however you need to be clear on their rationale for deciding that now is the time to take action on gender diversity and challenge it if necessary

  • Is this preparation for impending regulation? With the continuing focus on the gender pay gap and the lack of women at the top, government pressure, regulation and legislation are on the increase and we have a UK Prime Minister and a Scottish First Minister who are not afraid to champion the cause.

So, if the board want to ensure they are well positioned to meet more specific gender diversity regulations, you need to be clear what exactly they feel they need to be able to demonstrate. Is this about ticking the boxes and if so which ones? Do you need to demonstrate plans for action, action in progress or do you actually need to deliver results? If so, what results and by when?

  • Is this about reputation? Do they want to appear to be encouraging women to join the organisation or to be trying to bring more women into certain functions or certain levels? Do you just need to run a few initiatives that can gain some internal and external PR?

If this is the case, beware of pursuing this course as there can be significant repercussions which have the opposite of the intended effect. People see through initiatives that pay lip service but actually represent the leadership’s distain for the community or topic in question. And I use the word ‘distain’ very deliberately. One global organisation’s European Diversity champion told me of the desire of the leadership team to go for a gender diversity award. This required women in leadership to be interviewed about how the company had supported their progress. None of the women would do so, saying, ‘I did it despite the company, not because of [it]’. This precipitated a number of departures.

  • Is this about improving the organisation’s performance and increasing its competitive advantage through finding the best talent and making the most of it to the benefit of all stakeholders? Has the board recognised that a low-cost, high return talent strategy is to attract, retain and progress women?


What specifically needs to be different?

How far has the board gone with detailing the change they want to see?

Specific, relevant and timed targets are critical, both because of the truth in the famous Peter Drucker statement, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ but also because you need to ensure that the targets line up and work together to enable the delivery of an overall goal.

The failures that provide case studies of how not to do it have shown the cost of not cascading targets throughout an organisation so that every function and every manager - of people and performance - knows what their part is, and what they are accountable for, in delivering the overall goal.

Within this framework of an overall goal and specific targets, has the board committed to milestones? Probe and prompt for this information as this will influence if not dictate your priority for focus.

If the board hasn’t specified any measurement detail beyond an overall goal (or even just desire for improvement) then go to the next stages (issues and causes; learn from others) and then circle back to recommend numbers for them to sign off and communicate.

Before you start thinking about solutions pinpoint the issues

There are two compelling reasons for pinpointing and prioritising the most significant issues:

  1. Budgets are limited and may be hard to secure for the initiatives that are critical to success. So recommending spend with clear focus against the greatest priorities (and therefore the biggest benefits to the organisation) will give you the best chance of securing the funding you need both at the outset and then for subsequent stages.
  2. You need to deliver early wins and the bigger they are in terms of the benefits they deliver, the greater the support (or minimised resistance) that you and the organisation will receive for the subsequent stages.

The more thoroughly you do the job of identifying the gender diversity issues in your organisation the greater your success will be, as you will be able to develop solutions that actually address the issue – there is no point creating a women’s network if accepted behaviour in the organisation continually demonstrates that women are valued less than their male colleagues.

So, spend time in this assessment phase and don’t accept assumptions about the causes of the issues identified. Collect the numbers and ask the questions of the right people (go to the source) ensuring they have the confidentiality they need to give you the truth.

  • WHAT are the gender ratio numbers - by level, by function, by promotion rates, by types of promotion (who is getting the high profile stuff), by types of support (training, mentoring, sponsorship)? Where is the pipeline leaking?
  • WHY are these numbers what they are?

By working through these areas you will be in the best position to develop a strategic, costed and prioritised plan that will deliver for the board and to the benefit of all stakeholders in your organisation

 Making it happen

Recognise where your strengths and expertise lie and call in experts to help you get it right first time. The keys areas to consider this external support are:

  • Understanding the dimensions of the case for driving gender diversity
  • Current performance assessment – gender pinch points, priorities and opportunity costs. Sometimes it’s also more palatable to a board to hear uncomfortable feedback from an external agency  and it mean HR don’t get shot as the messenger!
  • Change programme definition and design

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.