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International Women’s Day 2020: How we can better equip businesses to deliver on equality

Each year, International Women’s Day (IWD) serves as an opportunity for us to reflect on progress made in creating a working environment that not only champions but also enables equality. It also serves as a reminder that all business leaders, regardless of sector, need to adopt a more proactive approach in order to accelerate the rate of progress.

Each for Equal

This year’s overarching message for International Women’s Day is ‘Each for Equal’, positioning equality as a business issue rather than a women’s issue, calling for a better balance across all aspects of the professional sphere, from the boardroom to government, workplaces to home offices.

A recent report, carried out by the World Economic Forum, predicted that it will take another 99 years to achieve global gender parity. While this figure improves upon the prediction of 108 years cited in 2018’s analysis, those in business should strive towards reducing this figure even further for their own organisations while also creating a better and fairer future for the next generation of young professionals.  

By now, it is well-evidenced that some of the world’s most successful and innovative organisations are those that have achieved gender balance at board level. Research from Catalyst showed that companies with a higher percentage of women in executive positions have a 34% higher total return to shareholders. Another further study from Catalyst found that companies with the most female directors outperformed those with the least, on return on invested capital, by 26%. With key pieces of evidence pointing towards the overwhelming benefits of diversity we must ask ourselves why is progress so slow?

One reason is that the practices and processes which put women at a disadvantage are often embedded into workplaces. These biases can be baked into the way we hire talent, manage the working day and think about parental leave. As leaders, we need to re-examine how we run our organisations to identify and remove these hidden barriers. Undeniably, it should be an organisation’s responsibility to guarantee inclusivity and gender equality. The question is, how do we work to get there faster?

Recruitment

Unconscious bias is something that we are all guilty of, it is an unavoidable flaw in human nature that sees us make intuitive decisions about other people based on the unintentional application of learned stereotypes. People make these judgements on a regular basis, and the world of business is no different. However, the existence of such biases can severely hinder organisations looking to recruit a diverse team.  

Whether inadvertently judging someone on the basis of their education, age, appearance or gender we can often trace such unconscious bias right to the very earliest stages of the recruitment process within a business. In fact, a study by Harvard and Princeton Universities  found that blind auditions increased the chances of female musicians being hired from 25% to 46%. 

Technological solutions like Applied, have made steps to make unconscious bias when recruiting a thing of the past. By removing all irrelevant information and focusing purely on the performance and skills of a candidate, they force recruiters to look beyond their biases and hire someone solely based on their ability to do the job required of them.

However, businesses also need to tackle unconscious bias head on. Through carefully tailored training sessions, employees are educated about the psychology behind unconscious bias and what steps they can take to prevent it from fully inhibiting their decision making. Once employees have gained a heightened awareness of this issue business leaders can continue to encourage inclusion, communication and positive reinforcement to move standard workplace practices in the right direction.

Working parents

According to Harvard Business Review, 43% of highly qualified women with children leave their career or take an extended career break. This alone, is no great tragedy. Equality of opportunity doesn’t mean women should have to miss out on motherhood. All too often, however, modern working patterns make it difficult for women to re-enter the workforce after having a child. Returnships, which give middle-aged mothers a route back into the workplace without having to start at the bottom of the ladder, are one of the tactics being employed by businesses to help. The placements fast track senior women back to their former position through an accelerated training programme.

More flexible working arrangements across the board are also important. The always on, 12-hour days of many financial and professional services environments are simply incompatible with parenthood – for men as much as women. Shared parental leave can help, but it’s just as important for employers to embrace a combination of flexible working patterns and remote working technology to make their workplaces more inviting for women. Indeed, a 2017 study found that access to flexible hours saw an increase in motivation, productivity and positivity amongst workforces.

Quotas

Quotas are a controversial topic and whilst far from the perfect solution, they could go some way towards re-calibrating the way businesses think. For as long as women are underrepresented at the top of businesses, the board room will fail to identify and eliminate hidden barriers to equality, so ensuring gender parity at the top should be the first step towards solving the problem.

Naturally, everyone should feel reassured that they have achieved success based on merit but with so many strong, experienced women already waiting - but not always being given the opportunity - quotas could work towards re-calibrating the imbalance whilst changing perceptions along the way. It can be argued that without female leaders, gender imbalance and inequality can often go unseen or deprioritised in the face of issues deemed more pressing. If anyone doubts the integrity of a woman’s position on the board of a company operating a quota system, let her do her job and be judged on her performance just as her male counterpart would be.

The future

Ultimately, we must remain focused on getting the right results. Getting more women onto boards is about strengthening diversified perspectives, optimising innovation and facilitating a richer culture - it is not about lessening quality, simply to tick a politically correct box.

At RSM, we encourage all businesses to use this year’s International Women’s Day to examine what part we can all play in getting us all closer to our goal by creating cultures, structures and processes that sustainably support women in the workplace and beyond. It’s quite simply, good for business.

In the words of the event organisers, “we are all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day.”