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.”

MEN MATTER TOO

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.”

TACKLING KEY ISSUES

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.”

BETTER BY DESIGN

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.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

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!

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