The business of women: Boosting balance in the boardroom

Businesses continue to press for progress

Business women explaining More than 75 years ago, Rosie the Riveter asked women to get to work. This International Women’s Day find women comprising a significant portion of the workforce, yet it’s never been more important to press for progress when it comes to gender diversity. There is still work to do to make sure there is balance in the boardroom, that the voices of women are heard and that they can play an important role in strategic decision-making.

As key findings from the newly-released Grant Thornton International Ltd.’s (GTI) study Women in business: Beyond policy to progress reveal, it’s one step forward and one step back for women in today’s U.S. organizations. While significantly more businesses (81% in 2018 vs 69% in 2017) now have at least one women on the senior management team, the proportion of women in senior roles has slipped from 23% to 21%.

Chart: Business of women-boosting balance in the boardroom

Still, achieving gender diversity is clearly at the top of today’s business agenda as 43% of the survey’s U.S. respondents recognize that it is an issue for businesses to solve. Yet, while a large percentage (60%) indicate that gender diversity is important to their business success, only a fraction (17%) have gender-specific policies in place to address the gender gap.

What is holding organizations back from moving the needle on the gender diversity challenge? According to Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for network capabilities and sponsor of women in leadership at Grant Thornton International Ltd., “While it’s hugely positive that women are in senior roles at more businesses, it’s disappointing that they are being spread so thinly. This suggests businesses are concentrating on box-ticking at the expense of meaningful progress and means they will not gain from the benefits of true gender diversity.”

She added, “We need to move beyond policy and focus on the vital role leadership and culture can play in creating real progress in gender balance. There is compelling evidence of the link between gender diversity in leadership and commercial success. The current volatility in the global economy and ongoing technological innovation and disruption makes the issue more important than ever.”

Nicole Blythe, Grant Thornton’s national managing partner, People Experience suggested that gender diversity goes beyond creating better balance in the boardroom. “If a women gets a seat at the table but it doesn’t feel like the seat has the same value as everyone else’s, or that her voice isn’t heard or her experience isn’t appreciated, she won’t sit at the table very long. It’s easy to check a box but that person has to be a vital part of the team, and you have to look at longevity in those positions.”

Blythe added, “Diversity is making the effort to show change and creates inclusion by bringing everyone together to show that diversity of thought is appreciated.”

Nicole Blythe"Diversity is making the effort to show change and creates inclusion by bringing everyone together to show that diversity of thought is appreciated."

Nicole Blythe, National Managing Partner, People Experience
In today’s competitive world of work, the business case for diversity is clear. Research proves out that gender diversity pays off big dividends for today’s businesses and should be regarded as a competitive advantage. According to a report by McKinsey & Company in its January 2018 publication Delivering Through Diversity, “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have superior value creation. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.”

Equally as compelling, the data revealed that not being diverse can hurt a company’s performance. “Overall, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 29 percent less likely to achieve above-average profitability than were all other companies in our data set,” McKinsey & Company reported.

Beyond the bottom line, there are other important business benefits of gender diversity. Women bring to the table a unique perspective that offers the business real value. “You might assume that women are more sensitive and people-oriented but in reality, women are really good at risk management, Blythe explained. “There are certain areas where they outperform men for various reasons. There has to be some acknowledgement of that and a willingness to capitalize on that. That takes intentionally, making time to determine what those things are.”

Niles Brown, managing director, Business Risk Services, agreed that diversity, especially in the management team, is critical to being effective in today’s environment. “When you bring together different skill sets and experiences, you get a better product and have a better thought process,” he explained. “It’s equally important that you have team members that are willing to provide points of view that drive you toward the right decisions.”

Grant Thornton, recognized as one of the “Best Employers for Diversity” by and named as one of the Top Companies for Executive Women by the National Association for Female Executives, is committed to a diverse, inclusive culture.

“We need to purposely surround ourselves with people who think differently than we do and acknowledge the advantages of doing that,” suggested Courtney Anderson, Grant Thornton’s Leader of Culture Innovation. “Organizational change is all about inspiring an individual, one person at a time. If you inspire someone on an individual level to be more inclusive and to think differently, you can eventually transform your teams to deliver greater business value.”

Men make a difference Gender diversity is a business issue, not a woman’s issue. Organizations need to engage men at every level within the organization to play a role in driving change, from advocating for policies that retain a diverse talent pool to calling out insults and inequities to eliminating pay and promotion disparities.

Grant Thornton’s Blythe suggested that it’s time the conversation shifted from overall diversity to diversity in leadership. “It’s crucial to model it at the top if you want these values to flow through your organization,” she explained. “It takes a significant amount of intentionality for individuals, especially male allies, to really be advocates and make a change.”

Helping women thrive means changing the behavior of all the individuals who make up the organization. This means they cannot solely focus on women, and need to engage men as equal partners. It’s especially important to involve men in diversity initiatives as they tend to view gender diversity at their workplace in a more favorable light than their female coworkers. A Women in the Workplace 2017 study by McKinsey & Company and revealed that nearly half of men feel that women are well represented in leadership roles in organizations where women account of only one in 10 members of senior leadership. Moreover, 63 percent of men agreed that “my company is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity” compared to 49 percent of their female counterparts.

Men can do their part in addressing gender diversity in the workplace by considering the following:

  • Become a mentor or sponsor of female colleagues
  • Develop innovation solutions if your team lacks sufficient diversity of thought and experience
  • Facilitate networking and social opportunities
  • Help to create a culture of diversity and inclusiveness
  • Consider critically where unconscious bias impacts your decisions about who to work with, who to hire and how to network and collaborate
  • Ask women to share with you how they have been impacted by gender bias.
  • Lead by example in ensuring gender balance in the teams you lead, manage, control or influence
  • Mentor and sponsor women in your organization
  • Further develop your empathy skills
  • Identify strategic male partners in a constructive dialogue about their own gender perspective
  • Participate in company gender diversity programs.

Despite the best of intentions, however, progress within organizations has been slow – there is still a lack of women and minorities in leadership positions, and certain industries like tech and finance are lacking diversity at all levels. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report calculated that at the current rate of change it will take 217 years to close the global economic gap between genders – 47 years longer than projected in 2016 and 99 years longer than predicted in 2015.
  Chart: 10 diversity tips
What can organizations do to accelerate the pace of change? In the Manpower Group report, “Seven steps to conscious inclusion”, three-fifths of leaders indicated they believe the single most powerful thing an organization can do to promote more women leaders is to create a gender-neutral culture, led by the CEO.

Many CEOs are leading the charge by developing programs specifically targeted at addressing gender diversity from establishing well-funded and executive-sponsored employee resource groups and developing women’s mentoring and leadership programs to instituting cross-functional task forces and providing equitable benefits. For example, Staples requires its 35 senior vice presidents to sponsor high-potential female talent for leadership positions while Gap Inc. created Women and Opportunity, a program aimed at developing women for future leadership roles.

10 steps to gender parity

  1. Lead by example. When making hiring decisions, consider “culture add” rather than just “culture fit” to make sure new perspectives are being brought into the organization.
  2. Set specific, measurable goals for increasing underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.
  3. Ensure gender quality initiatives involve both women and men as active and equal partners.
  4. Build a culture that supports allyship, where curiosity, courage, confidence and commitment are valued traits. This kind of work environment allows men to support each other in becoming an ally---acknowledging mistakes, holding each other accountable and becoming agents of change.
  5. Promote and address all key gender equality issues (equal pay, power and decision making, personal safety, interpersonal work relationships, community involvement)
  6. Pay attention to language and messaging; make sure it appeals to both men and women.
  7. Engage a wide diversity of men encompassing different organizational roles and levels, as well as a variety of backgrounds (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation)
  8. Provide training opportunities to educate men and women in how to lead change effectively
  9. Seek to build individuals’ gender confidence and capability by providing opportunities for both genders to change their mindsets and behaviors
  10. Encourage both men and women to challenge and change gender-biased organizational policies and practices

It’s time to make the business case for women in leadership. By defining strategy, setting direction, allocating appropriate resources and leading by example, organizations can press for progress and reap the benefits of a gender diverse workforce and leadership teams.

Contacts Erica O’Malley
Erica O’Malley

Partner, Organizational Strategy
T: +1 312 602 8786

Dr. Tiffany Yates
Dr. Tiffany Yates

Senior Manager, Organizational Strategy
T: +1 678 515 2314