Fostering inclusivity to close the gender gap

Women’s initiative networks are helping firms to attract and retain a more diverse and inclusive workforce

Lindsay James
16 June 2021

6 min read

Today’s most successful businesses are making gender equality part of their DNA through the formation of women’s initiative networks. Acting as a mechanism for inclusion on all fronts, these networks are helping to close the gender gap – and delivering a raft of business benefits in the process.

For the first time in history, more than 30% of senior roles around the globe are filled by women, professional services company Grant Thornton International found in a 2021 research study.

Having been stuck at 29% during 2019 and 2020, this is at best a small sign of a move in the right direction. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, it will now take over 135 years to reach gender equality. That’s because the pandemic delayed  parity by about 36 years, meaning another generation will miss out.

Experts agree that it’s never been more important for businesses to take action to close the gap. Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the World Economic Forum, said that if we want a dynamic future economy, it is vital for women to be represented in the jobs of tomorrow. “Now, more than ever, it is crucial to focus leadership attention, commit to firm targets and mobilize resources,” she said in a press release. “This is the moment to embed gender parity by design into the recovery [from the pandemic].”

Francesca Lagerberg, Grant Thornton International’s global leader of network capabilities, said that the firms that are succeeding at supporting women in the workplace are the ones that make it part of the DNA of their business. “Allowing everyone to reach their full potential in an organization requires an ongoing commitment,” she said. “Put simply, it needs to be more than a tick-box exercise. Behavioral change takes time.”

Grant Thornton International’s global leader of network capabilities, Francesca Lagerberg, leads about discussion as part of the firm's ongoing commitment to creating a gender-balanced workplaces where men a vital role in helping to shape a culture that understands why gender diversity is important. (Imager courtesy of Grant Thornton International)

For many organizations, the creation of women’s initiative networks (WINs) is proving to be an effective way of putting gender equality front and center.

“By providing structured support and mentorship, WINs allow women to address workplace issues in a safe space and find inspiration and motivation from role models,” said Debbie Forster, CEO of UK-based industry collective Tech Talent Charter. “As well as making a direct positive impact on its members, these networks have the indirect benefit of creating a culture where employees feel recognized and encouraged to bring their whole self to work.”


To have the most impact, these WINs need to be as inclusive as the future workplace they hope to inspire. This means that they need to involve men as allies, champions and sponsors.

“Gender diversity is not a ‘women’s problem’,” Forster said. “A lack of diverse talent affects everyone, so men are a crucial part of the puzzle here. Men can – and must – play a vital role in supporting women’s networks. They are part of the structures, policies and practices needed to change the culture in a company so they can be well placed to convince those who don’t get  why gender diversity is important.”

It’s not about attracting women to a networking group; it’s about highlighting that gender-balanced teams outperform those teams without gender balance.

Mia Mends
Global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Sodexo

Mia Mends, global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at French food services and facilities management company Sodexo, agrees. “The name of our global advisory board at Sodexo is not gender-specific, and that’s no accident,” she said. “It’s not about attracting women to a networking group; it’s about highlighting that gender-balanced teams outperform those teams without gender balance. As a business, we can perform better and improve culture when we have gender-balanced teams. That’s good news for everyone – our employees, our clients, consumers, suppliers, partners, the communities in which we operate and, of course, our shareholders.”

In fact, Forster said that the most successful WINs benefit all employees, resulting in a more transparent and authentic culture. “Instead of creating an ‘us and them’ feeling as some people fear, it actually often has the opposite effect – it helps to nurture a greater understanding of the issues and encourages everyone to be part of the solution. Allies and champions feel strengthened and better equipped to make a positive difference. These initiatives work best when driven by employees but reinforced with clear and vocal support from senior management.”


Businesses can use WINs as a mechanism to address the biggest gaps in gender equality, both external and internal.  

External factors include what the World Economic Forum refers to as ‘the growing double shift of work and care’. “Women still bear the majority share of caring responsibilities and costs, meaning that childcare, supporting elderly relatives, or even the costs of before- and after-school care, make standard working hours a challenge,” said Forster. “Flexibility is key in retaining female talent, so companies need to create a broader definition and acceptance of flexible work – including meaningful part-time work, remote work and split roles.”

Internal factors, meanwhile, include occupational segregation, stereotyping and unconscious biases. “While over 30% of senior roles across the globe are filled by women, what this really means is that 70% are still filled by men,” Forster said. “Most industries still have few senior female leaders. Ingrained bias related to a lack of diversity within organizations can make it harder for women to imagine themselves as successful and valued employees.”


Successful WINs are solving these challenges – and with impressive results.

Sodexo, for example, has created a global advisory board to improve gender equality. Called SoTogether, it is made up of 40 members – both male and female – representing every part of the business, including 20 nationalities and 72% from operational roles, which are the people delivering services to clients.

“Through the leadership of SoTogether, we are influencing people processes such as recruitment, development and employee retention,” Mends said. “We are also encouraging local gender networks to take action to drive the gender balance agenda locally, empowering women in our local communities and acting as a thought leader on gender equality.”

Surrounding myself with strong leaders at work, in my community or within my circle of family and friends has been an integral part of my journey.”

Meena Bajwa
Schneider Electric

Its actions are paying off. “We have already made progress towards three objectives which we aim to achieve by 2025,” Mends said. “We want to see women represent 40% of our senior leadership community, we want 100% of our employees to be working in entities with gender-balanced management teams and, overall, we want to foster a culture of inclusion.”

Grant Thornton’s network is also creating significant opportunities through its WIN.

“Grant Thornton is a global network and we have over 130 firms, all of which are working on diversity and inclusion,” Lagerberg said. “Our key aim is to use a variety of methods such as diversity and inclusion activation workshops to intentionally increase diversity, with a particular emphasis on gender balance.”

Women in Schneider Electric (WiSE) is an inclusive group open to all employees, designed to highlight and support women in the workplace. (Image courtesy of Schneider Electric)

Participants in these types of networks report that the support they receive is invaluable. Meena Bajwa, for example, who leads the marketing team for Canada at multinational energy and automation company Schneider Electric, said that women’s initiative networks have been instrumental to her success.

“Surrounding myself with strong leaders at work, in my community or within my circle of family and friends has been an integral part of my journey,” she said.

Women in Schneider Electric (WiSE) is one of the company’s many employee resource groups. While focused on women, it is an inclusive group open to all employees, designed to highlight and support women in the workplace. “It facilitates panel discussions, where we share career journeys and challenges,” Bajwa said. “We then act on these challenges through recruitment events, workshops and partnerships with various external women in STEM networks to provide meaningful development. All of this has ensured I bring my best self to work, while reinforcing the need to do the same for others. These networks also build camaraderie, recognizing that we are all stronger when we come together and build each other up.”


Ultimately, those firms that prioritize women in the workplace now will be better positioned for the future, WIN proponents agree.

“You only have to look at the statistics to know that achieving gender balance is good for business and future growth,” Mends said. “Currently, one third of small to medium enterprises are owned and operated by women. And only 5% of the S&P 500 – the 500 largest companies listed on stock exchanges in the US – have a female CEO. However, women make 75% of spending decisions globally. Representing 40% of the world’s workforce, they are the largest under-utilized talent pool in today’s global economy. And, guess what? That talent pool is getting larger, with women representing 60% to 70% of new university graduates.”

In fact, management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that if every country in a region matched that region’s leader in gender equality, they could add $12 trillion a year to global GDP by 2025. “These facts compel us to embed the right kind of gender balance strategies that drive results,” Mends said.

Quite simply, those companies that prioritize diversity will thrive, Forster said. “They will have better access to talent, better staff retention, greater creativity and will better understand and reflect the communities they serve. There’s no excuse not to address inclusion and diversity in your own organization, and those that ignore this will find themselves falling behind.”

Learn about Dassault Systèmes women’s initiative network, 3DS WIN, and new global leadership and management development program, Rise Up!

Innovative energy storage

German startup tackles renewable energy storage and industrial waste heat with single system

Jacqui Griffiths
9 June 2021

5 min read

The world’s shift to renewable energy needs a solution to one central challenge: how to store excess solar and wind power for later use. Meanwhile, energy-intensive industries have a challenge of their own: what to do with all of the excess heat they generate. Kraftblock CEO Martin Schichtel, a chemist by training, believes his German-based company has the answer – a thermal-based storage system.

Chemistry, concrete, curiosity – and a passion for sustainability – inspired Martin Schichtel to develop a groundbreaking thermal energy storage solution.

Martin Schichtel, CEO, Kraftblock

“Years ago I studied chemistry at university, focusing on nanotechnology before taking a couple of jobs in different industries, most in sectors like steel or ceramics, which wasted a lot of energy,” he said. “Then in 2008 I saw a TV report about ‘high temperature’ concrete heat storage. Concrete is cheap, widely available and you can shape it into any form that’s required. But I knew that concrete could store materials up to a maximum of 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit], while the industries I had worked in describe 1,000 to 1,500 degrees Celsius as high temperatures. So I caught up with the developers to figure out ways to optimize concrete so it could take a broader range of temperatures.”

What began as an intriguing chemistry puzzle grew into a game-changing sustainable energy system as Schichtel developed his idea and looked at its potential uses. In 2014 he co-founded Kraftblock with economics expert Susanne König, now the company’s CFO. Its mission: to design and build high performance, sustainable energy systems that enable different sectors – including high-temperature industries and power generation – to decarbonize.

“Our ultimate vision is that the world will live with a totally sustainable energy system in the future,” Schichtel said. “Our team and our investors strongly believe that storage systems will be essential to achieving that goal.”


Kraftblock’s story starts with the development of its core technology: a material that combines the thermal conductivity and large capacity needed to capture and reuse thermal energy for high-temperature industries.

“Worldwide, a tremendous amount of energy is wasted in the form of heat,” Schichtel said. “Industries like ceramics or steel require extremely high temperatures. In every furnace, kiln or thermal process there is wasted heat that is usually blown directly into the atmosphere. If that heat can be stored and reused, it becomes a climate-neutral energy source.”

“Our ultimate vision is that the world will live with a totally sustainable energy system in the future. Our team and our investors strongly believe that storage systems will be essential to achieving that goal.”

Existing storage technologies didn’t have the energy density or the ability to handle the high temperatures these industries need – so Schichtel and his team created it.

“Kraftblock’s industrial waste heat ecosystem has been designed to recover energy by capturing excess heat and gases before they are released and recycling them for use in a range of scenarios,” Schichtel said. “Heat can be recycled internally, for instance, to preheat a furnace or generate steam, or it can be used to create electricity. Because our storage is modular and portable, the stored heat can also be transported for use by external third parties. In both cases, it helps businesses to save primary energy and avoid generating CO2.”

High temperatures are not required to create the material – a factor that builds sustainability into the very fabric of Kraftblock’s products.

This virtual twin schematic demonstrates the flow of electricity from a solar array to the Kraftblock storage system, where it is captured as heat. The system releases only cool air to the atmosphere. (Image courtesy of Kraftblock)

“Sustainability for us has different facets,” Schichtel said. “One is to look at how our customers will use our system to become more sustainable in the future, and the other is to bring more sustainable efficiency to an energy system. We use a lot of recycled materials in our system, and it takes less energy to manufacture than competing products because it’s produced at room temperature with simple processes.”


In the long term, Schichtel and his team want Kraftblock to enable totally renewable energies – a path that will see the company storing and distributing excess power produced by large wind and solar farms. Today, Kraftblock is pursuing a “transition path” to that world of energy sharing. Dubbed REET (renewable energies in existing technologies) by the company, the strategy enables customers to create a green energy storage ecosystem using existing infrastructure. 

Schichtel sets the scene: “Imagine a food company that is using gas-fired boilers to produce steam,” he said. “To decarbonize, it must replace the gas for those boilers with green energy. A heat pump cannot deliver enough thermal energy to produce the steam. A renewable power-to-heat system, such as a wind farm, can – but not always when the company wants it. Creating a storage system enables the company to transfer green electricity to heat, with the storage itself becoming a buffer and distribution station for renewable heat at the company’s factories. This is the system we’re creating for a customer, to store green electricity and enable a 24/7 supply. That’s REET: the customer only has to replace its gas-fired boiler and it can keep the rest of its infrastructure alive and working.”

Kraftblock’s storage technology sits at the heart of this green energy story, combined with various technologies to collect energy for storage and distribute it using the customer’s unique infrastructure. “We’ve designed different storage units to provide huge levels of freedom for our customer,” Schichtel said. “The company can charge one unit with energy while discharging another to enable 24/7 operation, or it can join two modules together for higher performance when needed.”


Virtual twin technology is central to Kraftblock’s design process.

“Every company has its own, site-specific requirements for charging and discharging the storage unit,” Schichtel said. “So for each project we must design a complex set of charging and discharging devices that are unique to that customer’s needs and can be linked together in a modular system. Using a business experience platform enables us to combine the various aspects of product development, from thermal and mechanical stress simulation to building a virtual twin of the whole system. We can also use the virtual twin to show interested customers or potential partners different scenarios in a more-or-less live application, including potential issues and how to resolve them.”

This virtual twin schematic demonstrates the flow of stored heat back to the industrial company that generated it, for reuse in its processes. Alternately, the heat can be converted to electricity and fed to the power grid or used to operate the factory’s machinery. (Image courtesy of Kraftblock)

Creating a virtual twin of the system before physically building it has been invaluable to the company and its pilot customer.

“We do a lot of simulations of the system and processes, including predictions of how it will operate,” Schichtel said. “Our system’s efficiency in transferring energy to heat is essential in helping customers improve their sustainability, as even a 1% loss in efficiency could cost them a lot of money. Building a virtual twin has enabled us to keep the efficiency of creating the whole system at a high level. It helps us easily explain and demonstrate efficiency issues and improvements to our customers.

“Using a business experience platform enables us to combine the various aspects of product development, from thermal and mechanical stress simulation to building a virtual twin of the whole system.”

“It has been invaluable in enabling us to demonstrate to customers that everything will work as planned under different scenarios. With virtual twins of the energy system in operation we can also do things like predictive maintenance and building an artificial intelligence control system.”

Kraftblock’s vision of sustainable energy for all may lie in the future, but Schichtel sees opportunities to begin making it real today.

“Renewable energy generation and storage markets are developing rapidly,” he said. “In industrialized countries, more than 50% of the total energy demand across industry and private homes is for heat, and the technologies that deliver it always have to be adapted to the next step. As a result, we are seeing a growing number of requests for REET systems. Being able to monitor market developments through channels like social media is valuable, and virtual twin technology helps us to adapt to those movements.”

Editor’s Note: Kraftblock is supported by the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab through its incubator partner Industrial Future Hub, operated by Deutsche Messe Technology Academy.

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