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Business gender balance

Written by Kathie Knell

Kathie Knell served 20 years in the Military, leaving as a Lieutenant Colonel; she was Head of Welfare for Help for Heroes (H4H), setting up support centres across the UK.  Employed by the UK Government Stabilisation Unit, (the operational arm of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)), she was involved in initiatives to ‘Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict’ and as part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (London 2014). She is also an advisor and consultant for the Humanitarian Organisation.

China and India each represent 1 billion emerging participants in the global marketplace, and this group of the same size, this “third billion,” is made up of women, in both developing and industrialised nations.’ This context has wide-reaching implications for business, these billion women will be global producers, consumers, decision-makers, leaders.  ‘Companies should look at gender balance as a bottom line issue, not just a human resource issue.” PWC Report  (Deborah France-Massin, ILO 2019).

Despite the operational imperative, there are challenges and barriers for female progression.  ILO report (2019), notes that in terms of the gender gap, the journey is far from over. The UK’s gender pay gap has barely changed in the year since the government imposed new disclosure rules. Comment in the FT ‘Gender Pay Gap: women still short-changed in the UK ‘ highlights that of 10,428 UK employers, that the median pay gap this year was 11.9 per cent, compared to 11.8 per cent last year. The ILO report tentatively suggests we need a more revolutionary approach.

Whether considering women in the military or the private sector, there are very similar barriers to women’s advancement and to their retention. My 20 year career in the military is testament to this lived experience.  Trying to mitigate structural bias and stereotypes, to drive harder in order to compete fairly, to juggle family and career deployments, to overcome traditional concepts of leadership, often within a culture of hyper-masculinity, proved more challenging at times than dodging bullets. These experiences chime with informal research conducted with women across NATO and in UK Defence. Similar struggles are experienced by women in the private sector.

Massin (ILO Report 2019) summarises the challenges for business:

  • Enterprise cultures that require “anytime, anywhere” availability disproportionately affect women, relative to their household and family responsibilities.
  • The “leaky pipeline”, the tendency for the proportion of women to decline as the management grade rises.
  • Lack of Senior women; fewer than a third of enterprises surveyed had achieved the critical mass of one third of women board members[1].
  • Business organizations and employer and business membership organizations must take a lead, promoting both effective policies and genuine implementation[2].

Evolution or Revolution?  Solutions to redress unequal gender balance  

Research modelling proves that starting with an equal ratio of men and women, with a 1% bias in favour of men, after 8 years, the gender balance will be 65:35 in favour of men[3].  The ILO report indicates at national level, an increase in female employment is positively associated with GDP growth, so addressing unconscious bias, awareness, inculcation and training is a start.

Addressing the ‘leaky’ pipeline is more than having diversity and inclusion policies and strong paternity/maternity policies.  Its about cultural and structural change; championing new behaviours and ethos.  The role of senior (often) male champions is key.  Well documented by the Australian ‘Leadership Shadow’ project (2010) a group of Australia CEOs, calling themselves “Male Champions of Change” (MCCs), show-cased their experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership.  The leadership shadow provides a unique individual and team tool to consider gender-sensitive behaviours, policies and actions, which describe the shadow, either gender-positive or negative, cast across employees or the business. Senior Leadership ‘buy-in’ is as important in the military as it is to the private sector. Parallels can be drawn with the impact of Lt Gen Morrison (2014) who, at the Global summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London articulated his vision to drive from the top,  the acceptable cultural norms and values needed of a modern fighting force.

Both the private sector and the military have struggled to address the lack of senior women at board level.  The ILO report indicates that across G7 countries, the largest publicly listed companies  saw an increase in the share of women sitting on company boards between 2010 and 2016, However, the percentage of women who chair company boards remains critically low, ranging from 0 per cent in Germany to 4.6 per cent in the United States, showing that the glass ceiling still needs to be broken. This coupled with the effects of bias, mean women will have gender parity in the boardroom in 217 years!

Controversially, the Australian Army enabled women to ‘jump’ up to the Senior Committees without having had the pre-requisite ‘teeth arm’ postings (barred to women), but to enable a gender perspective at the top.  Private sector initiatives include hiring back senior talent to advise at Board level to ensure that 50% of the consumer population is represented at that level.  But this can cause resentment, from women as well as men.

Accountability, Steering Committees and external oversight are essential to deliver gender balance.  Developing a culture to show-case ‘modern masculinity’;  enabling and empowering men to feel able to champion flexibility and feminist principles delivers a better working environment for all.

Perhaps a revolution is required?  Extinction Rebellion (XR) site revolutionary theory to instigate change; “no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that!’ (Chenoweth 2016)  Massin (2019) concurs, ‘Transformation will not happen organically or by tentative and disjointed steps. Choices need to be made now, and they may not always be popular ones, to ensure a better future of work for all’.  To deliver gender balance, men and women are revolting!

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Women in Business

Mission Performance works with organisations to develop strategies to actively address gender balance.  Bespoke solutions may include the development of unconscious bias training.

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[1] Around one in eight reported they still had all-male boardrooms. More than 78 per cent of enterprises who responded had male CEO’s, and those with female CEO’s were more likely to be small enterprises.
[2] “The business case for getting more women into management is compelling,” said France-Massin. “In an era of skill shortages, women represent a formidable talent pool that companies aren’t making enough of. Smart companies who want to be successful in the global economy should make genuine gender diversity a key ingredient of their business strategy
[3] Male-Female Differences: A Computer Simulation Richard F. Martell Department of Social- Organizational Psychology, Columbia University David M. Lane Department of Psychology, Rice University Cynthia Emrich Department of Management, University of Otago

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