UK: Gender Diversity In Leadership Is Key To Business Success

Last Updated: 8 October 2013
Article by Steve Almond

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

To achieve parity for women in decision-making roles, men must beware of unconscious bias

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg jolted the gender debate when she invited more men to talk about gender, arguing that's what it will take to make change at the top.

In an attempt to discuss the issue as a male and as global chairman of an organisation that employs about a hundred thousand women, I recently attended a session at the United Nations Global Compact Leaders' Summit on Women's Empowerment Principles (WEP). The room was bursting at the seams, but with the wrong audience – more than 90% were women. The speakers must have felt they were preaching to the choir.

Sandberg is right. In order for real change to occur, men need to step up and take the issue seriously. As an accountant, you might expect me to start with the numbers. Women perform 66% of the world's work, produce 50% of the food, and own approximately 40% of all private businesses in the formal economy. Women are expected to control approximately $28tn in consumer spending by next year yet remain gravely underrepresented at the helm of business organisations.

Among Fortune 500 companies, women hold only 3% of CEO positions and 15% of board seats. In the UK, female membership of FTSE-100 company boards reached 17% this year; a big improvement since Lord Davies' 2011 report recommended a minimum target of 25% by 2015 – but women comprise only 6% of executive directors.

Securing parity for women in leadership teams is not only the right thing to do; it is the right business thing to do. In fact, companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals, with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity. In my view, employee commitment and customer loyalty in the 21st century will increasingly be positively influenced by gender parity in key decision-making roles.

The good thing is that companies are starting to get this. That's why 600 CEOs from more than 40 countries have signed a statement of support for the Principles and endorsed their simple but powerful subtitle: Equality Means Business. This is encouraging but we should not pat ourselves on the back just yet. There is much to be done.

A 2010 global survey of executives found that 72% agree that there is a direct connection between gender diversity and business success, but only 28% say it is a top-10 priority for senior leadership. And, while many leading companies have women-focused initiatives in place, they are not yet achieving the goal of getting appropriate numbers of women into key decision-making and leadership roles – the roles that have the most impact on business success.

Too many CEOs tend to delegate responsibility for the empowerment of women to their human resource (HR) departments or to special committees so they can tick that particular box and focus on other things. They focus on the diversity question ("how many women do we employ?") rather than the issue of inclusion, which raises more challenging questions. How many female leaders do I have? How many empowered decision-makers? How many women are serving as role models for the rest of the company's employees? Do our female employees feel included and engaged? Are we retaining them?

Clearly, there's work to be done. Instead of pushing the job off to HR, individual business leaders need to own the issue. We need to move beyond declarations of intent to substantive engagement.

We have many good initiatives across the Deloitte network, but perhaps a breakthrough for us in the UK is understanding the influence of unconscious bias. I endeavour to lead by example and be a role model. However, I now realise that I naturally attract people, recruit people and develop people in my own male image. The same is most likely true for the 600 signatories to the WEP and their leadership teams.

Deloitte member companies employ approximately 200,000 professionals across 150 countries. Half of our employees are women and there is gender parity in the many thousands of graduates we recruit every year. It makes good business sense for us to aim to have a proportionate share of our female graduate recruits become female partners. To achieve this, we must overcome the partialities that human beings naturally exhibit. I now recognise that I am prone to unconscious bias and can begin to deal with it personally and organisationally.

Our global board enjoys rich cultural diversity, but when I assumed my role as chairman, women comprised just 6% of its membership. Today, they occupy a quarter of its seats. This change is good for our culture and, what's more, it's good for our business. To achieve it, several of the most influential male board members volunteered to vacate their seats to make room for talented, senior women from their own leadership teams. We now boast a female member from Japan, a particularly pleasing outcome and message, given women occupy only 2% of corporate board seats in Japan.

So we're making steady progress, but we have a long way to go in seeing that women are equally empowered at the highest decision-making levels. I recognise there is no one-size fits all, quick-fix solution, but I and my fellow board members get it: "Equality means business. Equality means good business."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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