Gender-based diversity has been discussed for many years, but there seems to be much talk and very little action on correcting the imbalance we see today. In recent reports, representation of women in senior management and at board level is unchanged and, in some cases, has reduced. This to me is a strange phenomenon, suggesting that we refuse to recognize reality.
We know that women represent 50% of the population; they live longer and statistics show that they achieve higher levels of education than men, more so than in past years. Most University programmes have a higher percentage of female students than males, even in the traditional male-dominated areas of engineering and the sciences.
One would think that with half the “market” being female and therefore half an organisation’s clients or customers being female, there would be a greater interest in understanding that potential client base in order to tap into that market.
As males are we so arrogant as to believe that we know how males and females think? If this is so many psychologists and the writers must have it wrong; and if you think males and females think the same way try decorating a room together! It is my view, and this is supported by many successful organizations globally, that gender diversity within organizations delivers performance benefits, and this is beginning to gain acceptance in New Zealand. Despite this acceptance, the statistics are unchanged.
Often with senior management positions that I am briefed on clients look for specific levels of experience, unfortunately, women can be ‘lost’ to the workforce for months or even years as they take on key child-raising functions at home. In doing so they fall behind the experience ‘eight-ball’ and can tend to miss out on the senior positions, not because of lack of ability but through a lack of experience.
So competent, skilled women miss out on opportunities because other candidates have greater, though not necessarily better, experience. This is not a criticism of a company’s recruitment practice as companies must recruit the best possible people for all roles in their organization, but in an environment where candidates are difficult to source, companies need to look at new strategies to solve the problems of recruitment and retention.
Some of my clients, who in my view have embraced diversity at all levels of management, have also been successful in retention, reducing the need to recruit by introducing more flexible employment practices. When an employee takes maternity leave, as part of a package, or when they return to work, they are offered the opportunity to structure their work in a way that meets both the company’s needs and the needs of their family. These can be simple options such as reduced work hour contracts, flexible work times to fit around the school day or facilitating work from home arrangements. Other organizations have established crèches or subsidized child care.
An interesting aspect of this approach is a level of commitment and loyalty that is engendered within all employees and in particular those accepting this option.
As a headhunter I have found potential candidates unwilling to leave organizations that offer such flexibility in employment options. From the client perspective it is common for someone on a 20-30 hour week contract to put in more than 40 hours, and often these employees are much more productive. The long-term benefit is that these women are not lost to the organization or to the workforce. Their careers are retained for the future and they don’t suffer from the ‘lack of experience’ syndrome that acts as a barrier to senior management roles and beyond.
This ‘beyond’ for women in relation to directorships and broad appointments shows very poor prospects. Very few career-minded women get an opportunity to serve at this level and, in my view; the business world is the poorer for it. Currently board members are appointed in quite secretive ways apart from the SOE’s and the Local Authority Trading Enterprises where often professional recruiters are used to identify top candidates for board appointments.
When you look at the current structure of boards there is an over-representation of over-55 year old males, and of accountants and lawyers. Why is this the case? Well, because they look to appoint solid, risk-averse and trustworthy individuals. But does this necessarily make for good board members? Well, that depends on how the role of the board is perceived. If the board is there to define strategy and support and mentor the senior management team in delivering that strategy, it may be wise to take a broader brush to the recruitment of board members and to build boards that have experience and skills in the sector in which the entity operates. For example, engineers are potentially more useful in an engineering organization than lawyers, and similarly, marketers to marketing companies.
It is relatively easy to find the risk management skills of accountants and lawyers as you require them, rather than have them holding permanently on the reins of the business. As women gain greater experience and exposure at senior management level and the approach to the board’s selection processes change, we will find women are being appointed to boards and having the opportunity to shape the future and to impact on the governance of organizations.
It is my view that organizations will benefit from better performance and through a stronger culture, by following such flexible work practices. Having women continue their careers will in turn benefit them for the time when they wish to return to ‘full-time’ roles. I believe that once women are seen filling senior roles, they will be identified as having a real contribution to make in strategy and governance as directors.