11 Jul 2013 12:35pm

A fair playing field

Fair play is a must in the business world as well as in the sports world. A fair workplace is one in which individuals are able to rise through the ranks based on their talent and uninhibited by their gender. But Catalyst research reveals that although women are, on average, as ambitious and as qualified for top jobs as men, systemic barriers in the workplace mean that ambition and talent aren’t always enough. Take, for example, the paucity of women at the top of Europe PLC

When Lord Davies published his report on Women on Boards two years ago, he cited a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that estimated at the current rate of change it will take the UK over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms. While there has been some improvement in these figures, and women currently hold just over 17% of FTSE100 board seats, we’re still a long way from gender parity.

This isn’t about what women can and can’t do. Study after study show that women are ready to lead, and that gender-diverse leadership is better for business. Yet even amongst companies that have implemented programmes to attract, develop, and retain women employees, gender gaps in hiring, promotion, and retention rates persist—with men faring better than women on all counts. How can businesses leverage the rapidly growing and largely untapped leadership pool of women? And why have so many programmes missed the mark?

Why have so many programmes missed the mark?

One reason is that too many programmes focus on changing women’s behaviour—from the way they network to the way they lead—rather than changing organisational structures which might be holding women back. Another is the “think-leader-think-male” phenomenon, which means that men are seen as leaders by default, simply because most senior leadership teams are currently composed of men.

Catalyst’s aim as a global, nonprofit organisation is to advance opportunities for women and business—and we believe that in order to do so we must enlist the support of men, who are the most powerful stakeholder group in most large companies. We also know that before individuals can support change, they must first be convinced that the status quo is unfair and bad for their companies’ bottom lines.

Our Engaging Men research shows that just a small rise in some men’s sense that working to improve gender diversity is only fair more than triples the likelihood that those men would actively support company efforts to promote and develop female talent.

But our research also revealed several notions that need to be clarified before we can get men “on board”:

Promoting more women won’t leave men at a disadvantage. Some men questioned for our Engaging Men research expressed concern that gains for women could only come at a loss for men. However, in the global race for talent, the organisations best able to attract male and female top talent will be at a considerable advantage.

The current state of affairs isn’t the guys’ fault. Our research also showed that men were wary of being blamed for gender disparities and/or being seen as part of the problem. To create a “safe” place for men to air their views on these issues, Catalyst launched Men Advocating Real Change, or MARC, an online community for men to post their thoughts, share views and experiences, and read blogs from experts about gender diversity in the workplace.

Everyone benefits from more equitable policies. When a workplace is free of gender bias, both men and women gain significant personal benefits, including better health, greater freedom to be themselves, and improved ability to share financial responsibilities with a spouse or partner.

Neither men nor women want to be seen as “uncommitted” or relegated to the “slow track” when they leave work on time due to family obligations or other personal issues. And with Gen Y (and Z) now valuing work-life balance over “playing the game,” companies will need to begin putting less emphasis on face time and long hours as a requirement for advancement.

All companies need to dismantle practices that lead to gender bias. Having women be more or less permanently excluded from most companies’ top posts is, frankly, not cricket. We look forward to the day when men and women partner together to achieve balanced gender leadership in the UK and globally. It’s only fair!

Deborah Gillis is chief operating officer, Catalyst


Related articles

Davies review: all-male FTSE 100 boards halve

Flexible working boosts female board aspirations

What do women want?

BIS intervenes over women directors

Lord Davies warns of impending quotas

Firm admist "tokenism" over women at the top