Achieving gender balance - the practical stuff

Gender balance
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This is part two in a two-part series on achieving gender diversity. The first looks at why we need to focus on men, not women.

When I first talk to organisations about their gender issues, the conversation usually starts with an explanation of their issue, for example, maternity non-returners or lack of female progress from middle to senior management.

Then they tell me all the female-related initiatives they have put in place but which haven’t had as much impact as they thought.

One thing I should say upfront is that achieving gender balance isn’t about rolling out a series of initiatives.

It isn’t about diversity networks, a flexible working policy or leadership development programmes. Gender balance is about improving productivity, engagement, decision making, innovation, enhancing organisational brand and increasing profitability. 

For that reason, it's strategic and needs to be discussed at the top table together with all the other key financial, operational, people and sales conversations.

It shouldn’t be a strategy that is developed in isolation from everything else. Indeed, it’s vital that it is integrated with all other strategic programmes. 

Data, patterns and trends

First thing’s first – let’s take a look at what’s going on internally and what external factors are impacting your organisation. The latter is key.

I find organisations embarking on a gender-balance strategy have already conducted some form of assessment on how many male and female employees they have in different parts of the organisation and at different levels.

One thing I should say upfront is that achieving gender balance isn’t about rolling out a series of initiatives.

They may have analysed male versus female attrition. If they’re thorough, they will have analysed promotion data, staff survey results over several years and, if they have it, exit interview information. All of the above is highly valuable and important.

However, an organisation doesn’t exist in isolation.

Whatever cultural transformation you make internally has to fit with the external market. So a thorough analysis of gender balance within your sector, industry and customer base is critical. How does the ratio of male and female customers compare with your employee ratio?

A thorough analysis of gender balance within your sector, industry and customer base is critical. 

It’s worth noting that, whilst HR is a key partner in achieving this organisational change, equally so are Sales and Marketing who have customer insight data and know the profile of your purchasers, what they are looking for, what they like and don’t like.

Cultural mapping

Data is important but it doesn’t give a complete picture.

The organisational culture is lived in the organisation – it is ‘the way things are done around here’, which is often hard to define. It can be made more tangible through people’s stories.

Part of the analysis therefore involves conversations and focus groups of men and women at different levels and across the organisation to talk about what’s great, what isn’t great, the opportunities and the barriers.

Battle out the business case at the top

As with all things cultural and strategic, leadership, buy-in and alignment at the top is critical to success.

The organisational culture is lived in the organisation – it is ‘the way things are done around here’, which is often hard to define. 

Where does your CEO stand on the gender balance issues? What do they think the reasons are behind the figures? How important do they feel it is to address it? What do they see as their role in doing so? Where do they think their executive team stands on the issue?

The answers to these questions offer an insight into what the CEO views as the business case for gender balance and also the sense of urgency to address it.

You can then gather the rest of the executive team together to mirror these questions.

‘Battling it out’ is a deliberate choice of words as often this top team conversation ends up in a heated debate.

But it’s an important step to ensure they have clear alignment on the reason why gender balance is critical for their business and, most importantly, what their role is in doing something about it.

Action planning

Vital to engagement and successful change, the ideas for the action plan need to be fed in from all parts of the organisation.

‘Battling it out’ is a deliberate choice of words as often this top team conversation ends up in a heated debate.

But it also needs clear ownership – one key individual who is leading the change, preferably a man (this helps emphasise that gender balance isn’t a women’s issue).

This leader needs to believe in the business case and be confident articulating it; they need to be a change agent.

And of course, they need a team of people around them who are also knowledgeable about the business and have the authority to make decisions.

The actions are completely bespoke to the organisation and the type of issues they are facing of course, but here are a few I have come across:

  • Train, coach and support line managers in understanding the business case for gender-balance and their role in achieving it.
  • Rollout unconscious bias training across the organisation, starting at the top.
  • Run regular seminars where senior leaders and external speakers (particularly men) are invited to share how they work flexibly.
  • Offer workshops for parents to support them in managing work and family life.
  • Re-design jobs so they allow for part-time or flexible working.

For each action, there needs to be a clear reason why, how it relates to the analysis and connects to the external market, customers and stakeholders.

Pilot the changes

Rather than getting overwhelmed with the scale of the change across the organisation, it often helps to focus on one or two key areas, ideally where there is a strong senior leader who can vocalise and communicate the change.

One reason change fails is that people aren’t bought in and don’t believe the organisational ‘stickiness’ of the programme.

A pilot allows people’s ideas to be tested and it also demonstrates the organisation is serious and committed to the gender-balance strategy.

One reason change fails is that people aren’t bought in and don’t believe the organisational ‘stickiness’ of the programme - “it won’t last, sooner or later they’ll give up and embark on another initiative”.

Identify quick wins and roll these out immediately to gain momentum.

Measure the change

Through the pilot you’ll find out what works and has greatest impact.

But you’ll only know if there is a shift in the organisation if you measure and evaluate at each stage.

For example, you can gain feedback from line managers in their understanding of gender balance and how bought-in they are before and after facilitated sessions.

Its important not to keep the data and evidence a secret - celebrate successes and constantly communicate positive stories.

But the real measurement comes from analysing the change in behaviour of their team - how many of them worked flexibly before and after? How many men took shared parental leave before and after? How many women returned from maternity leave before and after?

Its important not to keep the data and evidence a secret - celebrate successes and constantly communicate positive stories.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight - you’re changing people’s beliefs about how the organisation works and they’ll only believe it if they see real evidence.

And the evidence can’t be a one-off, it needs to be everywhere and over a sustained period of time. For that reason, internal change agents are valuable advocates who continually reinforce the message and help turn the vision into a reality. 

About Nadia Nagamootoo

Photo of Nadia Nagamootoo

Nadia is a chartered psychologist and completed an Executive MBA at Henley Business School in 2016.  She is a professional coach, business consultant and facilitator.  With over 10 years’ experience in the field of organisational development, leadership development and talent management, Nadia has enjoyed working with a diverse range of global clients including HSBC, GlaxosmithKline, BP, the NHS, Kellogg, BAE Systems and the Civil Service.  Nadia has a deep expertise and specialism in the field of diversity and inclusion.  Her 2016 ground breaking research on men working flexibly and the systemic impact on women, organisations and society has achieved significant publicity and attention.  She works with leaders and organisations in their cultural journey towards creating gender balance.

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