Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Is women's progress stalling at your company? Here's how to get it moving again

Despite a few successes, corporate diversity and inclusion have hit a wall. Image: Rawpixel/Unsplash

Martine Ferland
President and CEO, Mercer
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Did you know that almost a quarter of global companies say advancing their diversity & inclusion (D&I) agenda will make a significant difference to their business results over the next few years? The same percentage that says reskilling and upskilling will have a significant impact?

So organizations believe D&I is critical to achieving financial goals, and, on average 80% of leaders say they are committed to the D&I agenda overall. It therefore follows that leaders looking to implement a successful D&I agenda understand that it’s about people and business strategy.

Unfortunately, commitment and passion for change is not enough to sustain progress. During my time at the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos in January, I sat in, and on, a number of panels focused on closing the gender gap. What struck me was, for all our collective efforts, good intentions and attention to detail, we have made progress, yet still have a way to go. While there are pockets of success stories, overall, we look a bit, well, stuck. So how do we increase momentum?

1. Assess your leadership team

Many CEOs have made pledges to diversity and appear sincere in their desire for change, but in reality, it takes more than CEO commitment. In our research and experience with clients, we see that CEO commitments can work, but only when programs and processes are specifically designed and coordinated around those commitments.

Every leader, every manager should not just commit to action. We also need to be held accountable. As with any other business goal, holding leaders answerable is key to driving progress. During my time as regional president for Mercer EuroPac, I worked closely with our talent & inclusion center of excellence to implement diversity goals.

For example, we introduced a goal to include early-career female employees in sales pitches. It had a dual payoff. It gave women better exposure to client opportunities and gave Mercer higher win rates: when there was at least one woman on a sales team, the overall win rate increased by 28%.

How do you ensure commitment and accountability such as this? Consider asking: do we have the right leaders and managers? Certifying this requires development of inclusive behavior in your leaders – and your succession pipelines. It also means being willing to make tough decisions when your leaders don’t act according to your core values.

2. Find unbiased ways to uncover bias

Companies willing to use data and analytics are better able to assess which programs and processes are the leading causes of a homogeneous workforce. Our 2019 Global Talent Trends study found that half of C-suite and HR leaders (combined) would find data-driven insights around why women and other underrepresented populations are failing to progress within the organization as a top three insight that would add the “most value to the business”.

Workforce analytics can provide those key insights. But consider, too, advancing technology. We have seen a rapid rise in the amount and types of technology available to support creating unbiased cultures, recruitment, succession planning and performance assessment, among others.

Remember, as you work through uncovering bias to remain steadfast in moving the needle. If you settle for the quick and usual answer, you will likely yield the usual outcome.

3. See your D&I program as inclusive of the whole employee

Our Healthy, Wealthy and Work Wise research found that women face a gender gap in career continuity and opportunity and access to employer-sponsored benefit plans – and are significantly more stressed than men.

This stress can manifest in interesting ways. For example, willingness to go for a promotion or a new job is correlated to financial courage; with women continuing to be less financially secure and more stressed about their current and future prospects, we will continue to see a reluctance to take risks within their career.

The gender gap issue suggests a counter-intuitive approach: that achieving gender representation comes by acknowledging and valuing differences, not minimizing them. If women and men are physically different, face different types of career and work-life balance challenges and societal expectations and approach financial security in different ways, then shouldn’t we adapt our benefits, education, management and training programs to meet them where they are?

To find that place, data analytics can play a vital role. It can help organizations identify areas of pay inequality and life stages that warrant targeted conversations. Meanwhile, personalized resources and tools, along with coaching, mentorship, and executive sponsorship of gender-specific programs can help women holistically focus on their health, wealth and careers.

Driving forward to diversity and profitability

As a global leader of 23,000 employees I don’t see profitability and D&I as zero-sum games. I see D&I more broadly, also as leadership and employee wellness issues. It is not enough, however, that the CEO believes it. We need to surround ourselves with the right leaders.

It's important to routinely take hard, unbiased looks at ourselves, our own leaders, our processes and our programs; to institute innovative changes to bring all employees along, not just on the company’s journey, but the entire journey into the future of work.

Like everyone else, at Mercer we’re still on the road toward gender parity. Only by actively listening, being willing to confront our own data honestly, meeting our employees where they are, and committing to take action as both individuals and a collective leadership team, can we come together for change, stay out of neutral and drive forward into a sustainable future for all.

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Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of WorkLeadershipEducation and Skills
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