As more corporate entities move to include employee demographics in transparency reports and social sustainability tracking, there is a greater impetus to find a solution to progress gender equality in a way that works across a variety of cultures, geographic areas, industries and sizes of businesses. Candice Eaton Gaul shares her views on the journey of RSM Member Firms as they commit to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles and why more organisations should consider this commitment. 

Gender equality is a pressing strategic area for diversity and inclusion globally. Being able to use the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) as a framework has been incredibly useful for making progress in this area. The reason that the WEPs have been so well received by CEOs and Managing Partners in RSM Member Firms is because it can be tailored to their organisation’s size, as well as their business and cultural needs. The WEPs have also provided an important aspect of consistency in both the methods of calculation and required areas of reporting. 

Creating real business benefits 

The biggest value in making a commitment to the WEPs, that many of our Member Firms have found, is for employees. This benefit is critical in a market with significant talent and skills shortages. I am very pleased to say RSM has twelve Member Firms who have committed to the WEPs, affecting about 30,000 RSM employees. This framework is fit for purpose for all sizes of organisations. 

The WEPs were drafted with a really interesting approach and it may be useful to point out, for any business considering a commitment to the WEPs, that there is no requirement to have everything perfectly in place at the time of signature. Instead, it is a benchmark of where an organisation is now, and the commitment made is towards progressing a more inclusive future. This perspective makes taking the first step a little easier, focusing on what to get done in the future, as opposed to what hasn’t been done in the past. 

When this commitment is made by the CEO or Managing Partner, it sends a clear message that progress towards gender equality is a priority. It opens the opportunity for leaders to invite feedback from employees, to deal with the ‘elephant in the room’; the pressing matters that need to be acknowledged and spoken about. Dealing with these issues and opening these conversations results in people feeling heard and valued, and has an undeniably positive effect on employee engagement, experience, job satisfaction, and, consequently, retention. 

Transparency and accountability 

Having been born and raised in South Africa, I have lived through, and experienced, how important transparency and accountability are for equality as a whole – not just gender equality. It takes time and serious commitment to address historic imbalances and deconstruct the systems of oppression put in place to impede an equal access to opportunities for everyone. Without that transparency, and without accountability, there is just not enough pressure to make change, to do things differently, and to drive results that lead towards truly meaningful transformation. 

Corporates hold a position of great power when it comes to social justice issues, and gender equality is an issue in almost every industry across the world. The WEPs are designed to be a vehicle that addresses the United Nations Sustainability Development Goal number 5 – Gender Equality, but they are also more than that. Of course, it helps for there to be a business case for the benefits that gender diversity brings to business, employees and communities, but building the path towards a gender equal future is a moral imperative. 

Good corporate governance means taking responsibility for the public’s perception and scrutiny. Being honest about the current position of a business in regard to gender equality, even if it isn’t favourable, takes humility and can garner respect through admission that there is a need for improvement and a commitment to action. Importantly, however, the commitment is not the action, it is the catalyst for measurable and meaningful change. 

Be active, not reactive 

In many countries, reporting on gender equality is not mandatory and that can lead to a challenge as to whether this issue needs to be dealt with, or even the question as to whether this is a business issue at all. 

My thoughts on that challenge are this: successful organisations are not those who take gender equality as a regulatory compliance function; they are the organisations that see equality as critical to the attraction and retention of top talent, and as critical to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace where there is a focus on sustainability and social justice issues. 

Businesses that want to be sustainable and successful have a focus on gender equality at the board level as a critical governance issue, and this is for three reasons: 

  1. It helps with the identification of the framework on ethical leadership and sustainability. 
  2. The opportunities that greater diversity in all forms bring to business. 
  3. It mitigates business and reputational risks. 

An equal future 

The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report for 2020 and 2021 showed that progress towards gender equality went backwards, indicating that the headway made was not substantial enough to hold up in harder times. This data, and other research, has led to increasing pressure for disclosure and action. We can see this coming to life in Europe with the European Parliament’s “Women on Boards” Directive, which aims to have at least 40% of non-executive director posts held by the under-represented sex, with penalties for those who do not comply. This is a good step and will lay the path for others to follow. 

The WEPs are an effective method to use as a catalyst for change, as a basis of measurement, and a good place for organisations to get started. 

In closing, I would like to encourage anyone reading this to just take the first step, make sure that in the future your organisation isn’t looking back wishing they had started sooner.