Senior leaders need to move the dial on diversity

Dec 2018

Since 2015, we have made almost no progress in improving women’s representation. This is abundantly clear from LeanIn & McKinsey recent report, ‘Women in the Workplace 2018’.

Women remain significantly underrepresented at all levels of our organisations – particularly women of colour. It’s at the first critical step up to manager-level that the disparity widens. According to the report, men end up holding 62 percent of manager positions, while women hold only 38 percent. In senior leadership, women are also drastically outnumbered. In fact, only about 1 in 5 C-suite leaders is a woman, and only 1 in 25 is a woman of colour.

It’s easy to think that if you do your work well, surely you’ll be recognised, and you’ll be fine – you’ll advance. But this just isn’t happening for a significant proportion of women.

Women have been earning more bachelor degrees than men for decades. We’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, attrition is not the problem – women are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.

The recurring disadvantage facing women is in hiring and promotions, and companies can do much more to create an environment to overcome these barriers to progression.

Here are some numbers to put things into perspective:

If companies continue to hire and promote women to manager at current rates, the number of women in management will increase by just one percentage point over the next ten years.

However, if companies start hiring and promoting women and men to manager at equal rates, we could get close to parity in management—48 percent women versus 52 percent men—over the same ten years.

In other words, right now, we have an opportunity to make a lasting change that will really move the dial on diversity. And as leaders, we need to treat diversity as the business priority it is. Until we do, meaningful progress remains out of reach.

What’s the role of senior leaders?

The vast majority of companies say that they’re highly committed to gender and racial diversity. Yet the evidence in this report indicates that many are not treating diversity as the business imperative it is.

The willingness to make a change is definitely there. I’ve seen it amongst my colleagues and other senior leaders. But people don’t necessarily know what concrete actions to take, and are sometimes (rightly) fearful of misstepping, and ending up making things worse.

So here are a number of things that I believe we, as senior leaders, can (and should) do:

       1.  Empower through sponsorship

Sponsorship can be incredibly effective. Good sponsors open doors for their protégées – but they are rare. In fact, fewer than one in four employees has a sponsor.

There’s a subtle difference between mentorship and sponsorship. While mentorship is usually rolled out as a formal programme, in which people are assigned mentors, sponsorship is a more informal relationship, in which a senior person champions you in the workplace. Of course, this often requires a personal connection.

I see men taking on sponsorship quite naturally. Senior male leaders may already have 2-3 men that they sponsor officially. However, it seems to be more tricky for women. The report indicates that women get less day-to-day support from their managers, and less access to senior leaders. Women are more likely to report they never have substantive interactions with senior leaders about their work, as well as fewer informal interactions with senior leaders, such as casual conversations or lunch meetings. Because senior leaders are often the ones to create opportunities and open doors, this lack of access puts women at a disadvantage.

Another challenge is that very few people are aware sponsorship exists, and how much it can help. So I think we need to do a bit of an engagement piece around it.

Within Blenheim Chalcot, we have set up a ‘coffee roulette’ group, in which any employee can be teamed up with any volunteering senior member of the team, from CEOs to senior partners. Because the system is completely random, people get teamed up in ways they perhaps wouldn’t normally, across both gender and race lines. And it’s initiatives like these that will start to make a difference, and make sponsorship more inclusive.

     2.  Be aware of your hiring practices, and diversify the talent pool

I really believe it’s important to take steps to eliminate bias – especially in our hiring practices.

A recent example came from Amazon, who recently had to scrap a ‘sexist AI’ recruiting tool that showed bias against women. The tool quickly taught itself to prefer male applicants over female ones, as the system was trained on data submitted by people over a 10-year period, most of which came from men.

In addition, we need to be more aware the messaging in our recruitment, and ensure that it is not unwittingly biased towards a certain group. Within our own recruitment, we’ve been using a number of AI-based tools to scan the language for unconscious bias, which has helped. But one of the most effective ‘wins’ in this area over recent months has been a relatively simple (and human) change: every job advert and description we write is reviewed by another member of the team, who can bring a different perspective and sense-check to the language and tone we have used. Sometimes, it’s the smallest changes that make a difference.

    3.  Champion an open and inclusive work culture

From my experience, on the rare occasion that there is only one man in the room, it never goes unnoticed. Comments are usually made (by the man) along the lines of feeling “outnumbered” – but that empathy is rarely shared when it is so often the other way around.

When I’m in a room full of men, which I am quite often, there can be an assumption that I’m not a leader and I can feel excluded. The report actually confirms that this is really common. One in five women say they are often (one of) the only woman in the room at work. This is twice as common for senior-level women (around 40 percent).

Unfortunately, according to the report, women who are “Onlys” are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. They are more likely to have their abilities challenged, and to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks. Women “Onlys” are also twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their career – a number which, according to LeanIn & McKinsey, is at an alarming thirty five percent of all women.

If we’re serious about increasing the number of female managers and leaders, we need to make the “Only” experience a rare one – and we need to foster an inclusive work culture.

At Blenheim Chalcot, we are still looking for new ways to improve – and we are particularly excited to see one of the Blenheim Chalcot ventures making major strides in this space. Hive Learning have recently launched Kaleidoscope: an action-based digital toolkit that helps leaders and managers adapt the way they hire, retain and support employees so they can be more diverse and inclusive.

While Hive Learning have seen a lot of organisations put important processes in place to tackle diversity, too often these organisations don’t prioritise actually helping their people understand what it truly means to be inclusive or to practice inclusion as they go about their job. “Ultimately we believe organisations should shift their focus so they don’t purely think about process, but also about people – with the ultimate aim of helping everyone put change into action today,” says Fiona Young, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Hive Learning. “That’s how we’ll close the equality gap at every level.”

    4.  Encourage flexible working, and support employees with caring                           responsibilities

There is still a pervasive and almost universal assumption that it’s the woman’s responsibility to take care of childcare arrangements. Until companies look at both women and men of childbearing age, and see no difference in terms of the potential impact on work continuity, we will still have a way to go.

I am a mother of two children (and a cockapoo) – and a CEO. And I often get asked how to balance family and professional life. A man in my position just would not be asked the same question. And this needs to change: either ask the question of both, or remove the question.

I’ve been lucky to be in a position in which childcare was an equal and fair conversation, where it made sense for me to push on and keep working. My husband looks after the children at home, and has done so for five years. At the school gate, he’s the one there for drop-off and pick-up – and whilst this is encouragingly less of an all-female affair than even five years ago, there is still a long way to go.

For things to change going forward, we need to be more accepting of situations like this. After all, forty-one percent of employees have children at home, and 17 percent of them do not benefit from the support of a partner in the house. And although balancing work and family is an issue both for women and men, it continues to weigh more heavily on women.

To increase the representation of women at all levels, companies need to find more ways to help employees balance work and family – and that means offering them the flexibility to fit work into their lives.

Within Blenheim Chalcot’s ventures, we have started to introduce more flexible styles of working – whether this is offering roles on a part-time basis, giving our employees the flexibility to work from home, or simply supporting our male employees when they need to go pick up their children from the nursery. Those cultural initiatives, we hope, make a huge difference to forging a more inclusive culture.

    5. Treat diversity like the imperative it is

Discrimination, whether that’s microaggressions or outright sexual harassment, should never be tolerated. But while 98 percent of companies have prevention policies in place, I was horrified to read that only 60 percent of employees think a sexual harassment claim would be fairly investigated and addressed by their company – and just 32 percent believe it would be addressed quickly. In other words, employees don’t feel like companies are putting diversity into action.

As leaders, it is our clear responsibility to set the tone. It’s also our prerogative to model inclusive behavior in our workplaces.

Of course, there is a wealth of evidence that achieving diversity – of thought, gender and culture – increases revenue. In Facebook’s gender bias training, they found that ‘businesses are more successful when they hire women: more collaborative, more profitable, more inclusive.’ And in research published by McKinsey from 2017, they found that companies that achieve gender diversity on their executive teams outperformed their counterparts by 21 percent. For companies who were ethnically and culturally diverse, that number rose to 33 percent.

Examples like these confirm that there is a clear business impact of achieving diversity. We need to treat diversity like the imperative it is. And it’s getting pretty urgent.

Opening up the conversation

It’s absolutely clear that it’s time to make a change. We can start by putting the basics in place – and sticking to them. But after that, we need to take bolder steps to create respectful and inclusive workplaces. Until everyone is used to walking into a room full of female leaders, we have to keep pushing.

As leaders, we need to open up the discussion about how we close the gender pay gap. We have a responsibility to tackle ‘taboo’ topics, such as bias and sexual harassment – and we need to be more open to the fact that men may need to go pick up their children from nursery.

We still have far to go. So here’s my challenge:

Can we do more to address this in 2019? Can we aim high, and become champions of getting this right? Can I? Can you?

Kate Newhouse, CEO Blenheim Chalcot