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How and why forward-looking businesses are prioritising gender diversity


If ever there was a compelling business case, gender diversity has it all. There is little wonder why forward-looking businesses are taking a bold stance, and gaining valuable advantage. The benefits of gender diversity have been well researched and documented. Here is a snapshot of what your business could be missing out on, and importantly, what you can do about it.

Talent acquisition and retention

Talent shortage is costly and impacts the majority of businesses. Research by Deloitte found that 83 percent of New Zealand organisations were experiencing talent shortages that were impacting business results. The skills in shortest supply were deemed to be critical thinking and problem solving, general management, and initiative and drive.[1]

Yet despite this shortage, we are both under-utilising and losing female talent. Women have outnumbered male graduates for over a decade, and make up around 60 percent of New Zealanders who hold a post-graduate or honours degree – yet only hold around 20 percent of senior roles.[2]

Employment statistics also show that over a quarter of mothers (around 132,000) are not in the workforce. That is, they are neither employed – which would include those on parental leave – nor unemployed. Of those in the workforce, nearly half of mothers with children under 14, and close to a third of mothers with children aged 14 or over, work part-time (under 30 hours per week).[3]

There is much opportunity, therefore, to improve how we attract, utilise and retain talent in order to optimise performance. This goes right to the heart of gender diversity.

Prospective employees, male and female, are increasingly taking note of the gender diversity policies of prospective employers – and paying particular attention to the diversity of the leadership team, the prominence of positive role models, the transparency of the company’s diversity policy, and its diversity demographics and targets. Businesses that get this right are more likely to become a magnet for talent, and they are also more likely to enhance employee engagement, and reduce their employee turnover. [4][5]

Better Business Performance

Unsurprisingly, therefore, alongside enhanced talent acquisition and retention, gender diversity is also widely linked with broader business benefits.

A report published by the Ministry for Women highlighted the breadth of these benefits, stating there is evidence of:

  • improved organisational performance
  • improved financial performance
  • better insights into customer needs and critical markets
  • improved customer satisfaction
  • greater innovation, creativity, and productivity
  • improved oversight of audit and risk
  • better decision-making, and
  • increased competitive advantage.[6]

Research also shows that whilst there can be variation from study to study, the scale of the benefits can be significant.

Credit Suisse, for example, showed that businesses where women made up at least 15 percent of senior managers had more than 50 percent higher profitability than those where female representation was less than 10 percent.[7] 

Economic contribution

Gender diverse companies contribute significant gains to the local and global economy. According to McKinsey, “If women were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as $28 trillion or 26 percent to annual global GDP in 2025.” This estimate, published in 2016, “…is roughly the combined size of the economies of the US and China.”[8]

In 2011, Goldman Sachs estimated a boost of 10 percent to New Zealand’s GDP of closing the male and female employment rates. By comparison New Zealand’s dairy sector – the country’s largest export earner – contributed $7.8 billion, or 3.7 percent to GDP during 2016.[9][10]

It’s working mothers that are key to the long-term viability of countries, with both the public and private sector having a stake in the outcome.
-Deloitte: The Gender Dividend

It is imperative, therefore, not only for business success, but also for economic prosperity, that gender equality becomes a priority – regardless of industry and business size.

What approaches are being taken by businesses to increase their gender diversity?

Gender diversity strategies typically focus on recruitment and retention. Aligning the diversity and recruitment strategies of a business is therefore crucial. Before developing a gender diversity strategy, however, there is much that a business can and should do to understand its own diversity landscape. These include:

  • Looking at the gender diversity of the business as a whole, and across teams and levels of the business – which also provides a baseline.
  • Analysing data such as talent movement (retention, recruitment and promotions), the gender pay gap, and the diversity of job applicants that were long- and short-listed.
  • Benchmarking against the wider sector or industry.

Taking these steps builds a picture of the diversity story of the business, and provides insights on the factors that may be preventing diversity – such as bias, low rates of female talent attraction, or low retention levels. Importantly, this information supports the development of a more comprehensive plan – one that responds to the needs of the business, and one that becomes easier to buy into.

Flexibility for men and women is key to gender diversity

Flexible work options for men and women are crucial to achieving gender diversity

A data-driven analysis allowed PwC to understand where its true diversity issues lay, and to re-develop its strategy to better respond to these issues.[11]

Similarly, BNZ recognised it was failing to retain female talent, and that its workforce demographic was not representative of its customer demographic. The bank used these insights to support the development of a tailored strategy.[12]

Below are some of the common tactics and initiatives adopted by businesses within their gender diversity strategies:

  1. Lead from the top. To successfully achieve gender diversity, an organisation must identify and overcome the obstacles – the routines, processes and behaviours – that are preventing a more diverse workplace. This requires sustained commitment to build and embed a culture of diversity. PwC advises that promoting gender equality “starts with strong leadership support and action, followed by proactive engagement and dialogue across all levels of an organisation among both men and women.”[4]
  2. Tackle unconscious bias. Increasingly businesses, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Coca-Cola, are looking at methods to reduce and omit the effects of unconscious bias, particularly on recruitment decisions and talent development.[13] Providing unconscious bias training, blind application screening, and reviewing lines of communication (e.g. job descriptions and website content) to ensure the use of inclusive language and imagery, are just a few examples of the techniques used. In some cases, businesses are introducing technology platforms to progress these.
  3. Diversity targets. A growing number of organisations are setting gender diversity targets, which fall under the accountability of the leadership team. Chief Executive for Aecom Australia and New Zealand, Lara Poloni, has introduced targets to grow female representation across all levels of the business.[14] Twitter, and BHP Billiton, which also operate in male-dominated sectors, have also set targets. This approach is recognised as one of the most effective means of enhancing diversity, and interestingly, companies operating in traditionally male-dominated sectors have been found to be taking a bolder stance, such as this, towards diversity.[4]
  4. Development of a gender diverse pipeline. Whether working with universities to support graduate programmes, or working at an earlier stage to increase the uptake of girls and women into traditionally male-dominated sectors, businesses are increasingly making it their business to develop and support a diverse entry-level pipeline.
  5. Actively seek female talent. With data showing the extent of latent and underutilised talent, businesses are working proactively to attract new female talent into mid and senior level positions, in addition to nurturing their existing talent. Research by PwC shows that this approach, which can also revitalise recruitment processes, is used by around 78 percent of large organisations to enhance gender diversity.[4]
  6. Commitment to short listing at least one woman for every role and ensuring a diverse interviewing panel. Such a commitment, as seen from the BNZ and ANZ, not only encourages the omission of bias from the short-listing and interviewing process, but also vastly increases an organisation’s chance of increasing diversity.
  7. Commitment to equal pay. A gender diversity strategy that overlooks the importance of equal pay has a gaping hole in it. Businesses focused on building a reputation for being an equal employer are proactively working to close the gender pay gap, and an increasing number are being transparent about their gap.
  8. Emphasis on work life balance (WLB) and flexible working. A growing focus on health and wellbeing, and its linkages to employee engagement and productivity, is also putting a spotlight on our work structure and habits.[15] WLB or flexible work options should therefore be considered for all employees, and backed up with the necessary training, support and resources. Offering flexibility to a small percentage of the workforce serves only to single out the few recipients, and can also overlook the challenges of a new and different style of working. Xero, ANZ, and the BNZ are among a growing number of companies who consider flexible working for all employees.
  9. Talent development programmes. These are focused on identifying and nurturing talent to support a progressive pipeline, and ultimately to increase the number of women progressing into senior roles. Examples of initiatives include challenging job assignments, leadership opportunities, mentoring, sponsoring, networking, and confidence building. EY, Goldman Sachs, and PwC are all examples of businesses that offer such programmes.[16]
  10. Proactive support for parents (both mothers and fathers). This is increasingly viewed as fundamental to an optimised gender diversity strategy, and to economic prosperity. A lack of support for mothers in the workplace could be contributing to higher rates of childlessness among educated women, and to the underutilisation of talent, as mothers drop out of the workforce or take a step back.[17] Examples of initiatives include extended parental leave, remuneration review during parental leave, return to work programmes, enhanced flexibility, mentoring, dedicated breastfeeding areas, and in some cases, subsidised childcare and/or onsite childcare facilities.
  11. Seek and empower role models. Xero appears to give a masterclass at empowering and promoting its female employees. Doing so enables positive reinforcement throughout the business, and beyond, that women are valued, are given equal opportunities, and can and should be leading – and in Xero’s case, in a traditionally male dominated sector. Done well, such positive visibility can help lift the aspirations of others of the same gender.[18]
  12. Investment in diversity and inclusion expertise. As gender diversity is prioritised, and its depth appreciated, businesses are increasingly sourcing the skills required to support the development and implementation of a gender diversity strategy. Twitter, Facebook, Xero and Intel are just a few examples of businesses that have recruited these skills.
  13. Show and tell. You can have the best diversity strategy in the world, but unless others know about it, and believe in it, it will count for very little. The businesses that will attract and retain talent are those that make a genuine and visible commitment to gender diversity, and develop a reputation for delivering on it.
  14. Impose high expectations. A growing number of businesses are taking steps to influence the gender diversity priorities of other businesses, by making gender diversity a criterion for businesses they partner with. Facebook, for example, is expecting female and ethnic minority representation to account for at least 33 percent within the law firms it engages on its legal matters.[19] Of course it is not just an ethical step, but it also makes good business sense given the business and economic benefits of diversity.

A range of tactics are therefore used by businesses to enhance gender diversity, and we can only expect this list to grow and evolve, and for technology to play an increasing role. The approach used will likely vary between businesses, depending on factors such as industry, size and current diversity landscape. What is common among them, however, is the integrity to act, an attitude to learn and refine as they go, and perseverance.

The bar will continue to be raised

As the social and ethical expectations on organisations grow, we are seeing greater coverage of the thought-leading actions of trail-blazers globally, as they take increasingly bolder steps towards equality. Similarly, we are also seeing a growing trend of organisations being singled out for their lack of action, or for their oversight of gender equality matters. It is likely these trends will continue to emerge as emotional tensions grow, and as men and women continue to expect an increasing level of commitment on gender equality matters.

It is beyond doubt, therefore, that businesses must embrace gender diversity. And those who move early will likely recognise far superior benefits to those who are slow to engage.

CareerMum offers fresh, New Zealand focused perspectives on the topic of gender equality, and aspires to improve the working landscape for career mums. www.careermum.co.nz 

Keen to contribute? Get in touch to share what your organisation is doing, or looking to do, to support gender diversity. 

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[1] Talent Edge New Zealand – 2013: Addressing Worrisome Gaps. Deloitte, March 2013

[2] Source: Statistics New Zealand

[3] Using latest available figures from Statistics New Zealand – as at the end of June 2014 (27.7 percent). Mother is defined as “having a dependent child living at home, who is under 17 years of age and who is not in full time employment (if aged 15 or over).”

[4] Winning the fight for female talent: how to gain the diversity edge through inclusive recruitment. PwC.com, March 2017. Retrieved 12 May 2017.

[5] Biro, M. 5 reasons why workplace flexibility is smart talent strategy. Forbes.com, 18 August 2013.

[6] Realising the Opportunity: Addressing New Zealand’s leadership pipeline by attracting and retaining talented women. Ministry for Women, September 2013.

[7] CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management. Credit Suisse, September 2014.

[8] Madgavkar, A., Elingrud, K. & Krishnan, M. The economic benefits of gender parity. McKinsey & Company, 8 March 2016. Retrieved 8 May 2017.

[9] Closing the Gender Gap – Plenty of Potential Economic Upside. Goldman Sachs Research Report, 9 August 2011.

[10] Dairy sector contributes 8 billion to GDP. NBR, 22 February 2017.

[11] The PwC diversity journey: creating impact; achieving results. PwC, September 2016.

[12] BNZ wins UN gender equality award. Published on Stuff.co.nz, March 2013.

[13] Do You Have Unconscious Gender Bias? UN Women, PwC Launch a Course to Help You Find Out. Fortune, 17 October 2016.

[14] Engineering a 50/50 Gender Split. NZ Herald, 26 August 2016.

[15] The Value of Promoting Employee Health and Wellbeing. Robert Walters Whitepaper.

[16] The Ministry for Women provides a list of fundamental opportunities to include in talent development programmes.

[17] Educated Women are having fewer children. CareerMum, 24 November 2016. Retrieved 12 May 2017.

[18] The role model effect: women leaders key to inspiring the next generation. By Eva Pereira, published 19 January 2012, on Forbes.com.

[19] Facebook pushes outside law firms to become more diverse. NYTimes: 2 April 2017. Retrieved 12 May 2017.


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