Jobs and the Future of Work

How to turn words into action on gender parity

Japanese job-hunting students dressed in suits attend a business manners seminar at a placement centre in Tokyo May 28, 2012.

Job seekers in Japan Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Dennis Nally
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In today’s world, business surveys – including those conducted by my own organisation – consistently show that business leaders ‘get’ the need for equal treatment of men and women in their workforces. And my own conversations with senior businesspeople around the world confirm that the vast majority recognise this is imperative to business success – and have put measures in place to promote and nurture gender parity in their organisations.

This is the right thing to do, and there’s no question that progress is being made. We all want the next generation to live in a world where women and men are peers and equals. But the reality in companies across the globe is that while fine words are winning the battle for hearts and minds, much more action needs to be taken on the ground before we can truly feel that the goal of gender parity is within our grasp.

The facts speak for themselves. There’s still a pay gap between the genders in every country in the world, with men earning more than women for similar jobs. Meanwhile, women's participation on boards appears to have stalled at around 17%. And the perception that the promotion playing-field is tilted towards men is often reflected among female employees themselves: in 2015, when PwC carried out a global survey of female millennials born between 1980 and 1995, half of those working in financial services worldwide said they believed promotion was biased towards men – and more than 70% said that while organisations talk about diversity, opportunities are still not equal for all.

Interestingly, other studies underline that where women do get the opportunity to perform on an equal footing with men, more often than not they win out. In the US, a recent ten-year analysis of 300 start-up investments backed by venture capitalists showed that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than those with all-male founding teams. And another of PwC’s research programmes – this time into the changing face of billionaires worldwide – revealed what we call the “Athena Factor”, with growth in the number of female billionaires significantly outpacing that among men, and Asia registering the fastest growth in its ranks of self-made female billionaires.

The message is clear: where they have the opportunity to forge ahead by capitalising on their own talents, women are doing so successfully and with gusto. Equally, within established organisations, there’s widespread recognition of the positive contribution that a more diverse workforce makes to business performance, meaning gender parity benefits everyone working in a business, men as well as women. Yet – as the stubborn gender pay gap underlines – there are still embedded barriers to women’s progress through and up organisations.

So, more is needed. But what can we do differently to build the momentum and accelerate progress towards parity? And how can we get men not only to acknowledge this challenge, but engage actively in addressing it, to help ensure that today’s rising generation of women realise their full potential as future business leaders and innovators?

Well, change has to start with wanting to change. The good news is that the rationale for gender parity is now widely accepted, and the will is there to make it a reality. To push on from here, I believe what’s now needed is a genuine and permanent shift in attitudes and behaviour. Many of the biases that hold people back are unconscious – and by their very nature, these blind spots can’t be tackled by statements of intent alone. So it’s important to identify where, how and why these biases materialise, and develop systematic strategies and interventions to expose them and root them out.

That’s something actively happening every day throughout the PwC network. And to support these efforts, one more thing that I think all businesses should do is to actively challenge men to help advance women in the workforce. That's why I am proud to be a founding corporate Impact Champion of UN Women's HeForShe movement, reflecting my belief that to create real and lasting change around gender parity, we need to help men and women work together to realise everyone's full potential.

Developing the challenging skill of working well across difference is crucial in business today. Many of the skills we can develop to work better across difference – open-mindedness, humility, empathy among others – help us work across various types of difference, whether they be cultural, physical, or personality. Women remain a critical group as they’re half of our global population.

Reassuring male sceptics who view gender parity as a threat remains paramount. In June 2015, I hosted a HeForShe chat on Twitter, and while the conversation was overwhelmingly positive, an obvious concern surfaced: why should men help promote women to positions they're aiming at themselves? To address such concerns, it's vital to show that we're not promoting some people at the expense of others, and that gender parity is win-win, not zero-sum. Across the PwC network, this is being addressed by hosting conversations in which men and women discuss gender issues collaboratively and respectfully, and by working with both genders to challenge double standards and acknowledge potential blind spots.

Recent research has suggested that at the current rate of progress, we won't reach gender parity for another 80 years. That’s not good enough. Let's all commit to achieving it in our lifetimes – for the benefit of all.

Author: Dennis Nally, Chairman of PwC International. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

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