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Balanced business is better business - here's how you get it right

There's no easy fix when it comes to developing a gender-balanced workforce but there is a guaranteed pay-off if you change company culture, said Ann Francke, CEO of CMI

Balanced business is better business - here's how you get it right

Building a more inclusive and diverse workplace is not a nice-to-have, but a fundamental business imperative. This has always been the case. Reports show that diversity and gender balance has a significant impact across all areas of your business – not just the people and culture but your top and bottom line. In fact, McKinsey estimates we could add 28 trillion to global GDP if we achieved gender equality everywhere – more than the GDPs of the US and China combined.

But it’s so much more than that. 

Gender equality in the workplace is one of the best levers we can pull to build better managers and leaders at every level, improve team performance and create better cultures where everyone can thrive, explained Ann Francke, author of Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace and CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). She was speaking during the third, (and first virtual) installment of The Book Club hosted by Zone and Campaign, in partnership with Penguin Business. 

The impact of Covid-19 on gender balance has not been straightforward, Francke feels: "There could be one step forward and a few back. Where we end up depends on what we do coming out of the current lockdown." 

With so many of us now working from home for the first time, everybody has realised it's absolutely possible to be productive and get stuff done. Pre-lockdown, Francke explains there was a lot of stigma attached to flexible working – previously regarded as something only mothers did to help juggle family responsibilities. "There is a shift in trust of flexible working as a productive approach for all office based workers, not just those with families."

On the other hand, she says, the setbacks are two-fold. Caring responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women, many now working from home, homeschooling and looking after children. In a survey of over 1,000 managers, Francke said how women are more likely to pick up on the strains of their teams in balancing caring duties and, crucially, are more likely to pick up on the mental health challenges this presents.

Secondly, by the end of April, UK companies with more than 250 employees had to report on their annual gender pay gaps. But due to the extraordinary fight for survival almost all businesses currently face, the government suspended this requirement "taking away a real transparency metric for progress, though of course, completely understandable in the current situation," says Francke.

Those are the problems – are there answers?
In Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace, Francke introduces her solution to combating the problems at the heart of workplace gender imbalance and offers clear, actionable strategies for making a positive change in your organisation.

Her inspiration for the book is both professional and personal. Professionally, one deep rooted in the CMI, is the desire to turn accidental managers into better leaders. "Evidence suggests that when you have gender balanced management, you have better results and in turn makes people better line managers."

On a more personal level, Francke alludes to her long, extensive career (having held senior positions at Procter & Gamble, Mars, Boots, Yell and BSI) and how, when she worked in or managed a gender balanced team, the results and culture were "so much better". Equally, it was "not a very happy situation" from time to time, when she was the only woman in the c-suite .

Shifting the culture
Be aware of your workplace culture; it’s the hardest thing to change. Francke says the best way to set about creating change, is to measure how diverse your culture is at every level of your organisation. The balance at the bottom, she explains is often equal whereas, in the boardroom, it is usually 90% male to 10% female. "You will never get those people at the bottom to the top, unless you change the culture at the top." Francke calls this the ‘glass pyramid’.

She advocates setting targets for implementing genuine change – breaking down your organisation into quartiles and looking at the percentage of men and women for each. Often, you’ll see more women in the bottom quartile and so you need to track your promotion rate: "It’s almost universally true that in the next level you’ll be promoting more men than women because suddenly you have far fewer women." If you promote proportionately, over time you’ll achieve gender balance.

But, watch out for biases – which we all have: "If your organisation is one that promotes people that look just like themselves, and 80% at the top are men then naturally, they are going to promote other men."

Filling quotas 
Looking globally, explains Francke, when it comes to getting women on the board, the most progress is made in countries where they have enacted quotas. While exceptions to this include the UK, Australia and Sweden, every other country with over 30% of women or more on executive boards have used quotas. But if you want to inspire business people to take control of their destiny, own their results and their outcomes, you don’t impose quotas because "they inspire cynicism".

The glass pyramid exacerbates and reinforces the gender pay gap: women are often stuck at the bottom in lower paid jobs, while male counterparts occupy the higher paying roles at the top.

So how do we go about closing the gap?
Education has a huge role to play. Gender stereotyping starts in schools, Francke said she often reminds girls she speaks to that we have not yet solved this problem: "Yes, you may see that gender balance at the bottom when you first start out in a job but you will not see it at the top, unless you advocate for it consistently."

Be an advocate for change. The CMI has monitored the managerial gender pay gap over the past five years: "We have not made much progress at all," she said. Fundamentally, there’s still around a 25% pay gap between males and female managers. 

And there’s still so much work to do. On a global level, according to the World Economic Forum’s last report of over 150 countries, the predicted number of years to achieve economic parity between genders dropped from 217 years to 207 years. Hardly anything to shout home about.

Francke encouraged people entering the workforce to do their homework. Seek out the companies who have put in the time and effort to deal with this issue and those who have made excellent progress. Take a look at your sector, choose companies who are aware of the problem, admit the problem and have plans in place to fix the problem. Do not be afraid to ask potential employers key questions such as "what’s the gender balance at the top 25% of the company?" and "what are you doing about it?".

Francke urged women to call out mansplaining and similar micro-sexisms. And men should welcome it! It helps set a positive example and encourages more women, particularly those in junior roles to follow suit. Give specific examples, explain how it made you feel and ask the person to think about the impact of their words or actions – "nobody can deny the impact of their behaviour on you".

"Aren’t we done with gender now?"
Francke said: "Gender balance is first and foremost a business issue. There’s a real business case to keep talking about it – if you care about the outcomes for your organisation, your sustainability, your ability to attract and retain talent and creating an engaged working environment and ultimately, your results." This is not an issue that’s over.

Women of her generation often got to the top by not being as true to themselves as perhaps they wanted to be. "You had to be sharp suited, power shouldered and tough," – characteristics that she says often put a lot of women off. "Eventually that caught up with my values and I had to quit," she explained. 

"It’s a lot better today than it was 20 years ago," and while, there are still some workplaces that operate where women at the top are compelled to choose between career and being a mother, these organisations will struggle to attract talent. Many women drop out when they are confronted with this kind of culture. Today, it’s easier to talk about these things: "There’s a lot more talk about everyone being able to be their best self and people are more aware of leadership role models and behaviours." 

The solution
"It’s easier said than done but what we need to do is take this increased awareness and turn it into ambition and action to make a difference."

We need to recognise that ‘Tiara Syndrome’ is absolutely true, says Francke. "Many women are taught that if they keep their head down, work hard, be really good at their job then then they’ll get promoted." But gender balance reporting tells us that it doesn’t work that way. 

Francke advocated for women to keep an achievements log – "write down at least once a month, what you have achieved, make sure you articulate it as clearly as you can". Women often don't catalogue their achievements as well as men. Use this log as a boost of confidence to ask about your path to promotion. And crucially, see a job you want? Then just go for it (regardless of whatever criteria you might fret about not meeting).

To men, encourage female employees and colleagues to go for that promotion. When businesses alter their recruitment language, they attract more balanced applications. Encouragingly, millennial men are often less loyal to companies than previous generations and are savvier about wanting a two-way exchange between their values and the company. 

Yes, it’s the responsibility of companies to create the right culture "but companies are made up of people and it is ultimately how people behave individually that creates the company culture." People have the power to change the culture, by altering their behaviour.

Women are over-mentored but often under-sponsored, said Francke and she advised businesses to have structured sponsorship pathways: "I encourage women to get a sponsor, and men – and, I encourage you all to be sponsors". But you have to be willing to advocate for that person and put them in the way of opportunity. 

It’s not about fixing the women
Francke is hopeful that one of the silver linings of the current crisis is that leadership will become a little bit more human, more inclusive and more flexible. It’s not about "fixing the women" it’s a cultural problem, a business problem, a societal problem.

"We’ve seen being productive is absolutely possible when working from home, and that everybody can do it (even professions who never thought they could, such as investment banking – a typically male dominated sector) and suddenly, they see it can be done and we’re seeing even more into people’s lives than pre Covid-19." 

And that, she hopes, will benefit women and help to create a more inclusive culture where everybody thrives: "A proper gender balance benefits men as well as women." 

Order your copy of Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace here and catch up on the Book Club here.


Zone, a Cognizant Digital Business, created its Book Club series to champion innovation, diversity and creativity in the technology industry, with a specific aim to inspire, educate and inform.

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