Gender diversity. Two words you generally see plastered across a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility documentation or ‘Why Work With Us’ Careers page. Interestingly, it is not often you see the words ‘gender diversity’ in companies’ strategic business plans.
Through working at Women in Digital, a community organisation dedicated to connecting, educating and empowering our way to gender diversity in digital, and as a Technology Consultant for a Hunt & Co. Consulting I am talking to key stakeholders, successful tech founders and executives every day.
You can read more about why we need to stop viewing gender diversity as altruistic and confining it to Corporate Social Responsibility pages, and seeing it more as part of growing a strategic and robust workforce in another article I wrote on the topic — ‘Gender Diversity in the Workplace: Altruistic or just good business?’ — click here.
It was after hearing Patrick FitzGerald, an accomplished Consultant and Director with 30+ years of experience in industry, share the story of a project he worked on that I asked to interview him.
Patrick’s experience is a prime case study that so firmly demonstrates the business case for hiring diverse talent.
Due to some legal and confidentiality limitations, we aren’t able to identify the company but it keeps the mystery alive right? What I can tell you is a little bit about the company:
- They are a globally-recognised name with a workforce over 30,000 people
- They operate in historically male-dominated fields — specifically finance and technology
- They are one of the world’s largest organisations with annual revenue typically between US$40-$60 billion
- Due to their age, industry, size and through being publicly-traded, I think it’d be fair to say that they aren’t the most progressive, fast-moving organisations which is great news, because if they are capable of change… all businesses are!
During the interview with Patrick, I wanted to channel my consultant and talent acquisition hats more than anything else to truly understand what were the key problems they had identified, how did they address them, what were the key things they realised along the transformation process and most importantly, what tips and insights can we share with other business owners, executives and teams?
Q: What were the key problems you identified?
A: In the 2000s, we were working in Asia and experiencing a number of key problems:
- Women had grown in financial independence and there was a growing trend for them to take greater interest in their personal financial independence — even when in a relationship.
- Women did not have a great number of women to turn to for formal financial advice, even though many had a preference for talking to another woman about financial matters.
- The business had aggressive growth targets driven by an aggressive hiring imperative. At the time, the organisation was a smaller player as we’d just entered the Asia market and did not have the high-powered incentives to attract the level of hires from the generally male-heavy cohort of people within the industry. We had noticed, on a smaller scale, that a female-friendly focus to hiring (how they hired, the flexibility and options that they offered) was resonating with women within the industry but also within allied industries (banking, sales etc).
- Our only way of hitting hiring targets was hiring lots of women. Our hiring rates using the standard process was not producing the rate of hire we needed, but our experiments with the female-friendly approach was producing a hiring rate approaching what we needed.
Q: How did they address them?
A: The problems laid out were all pointing towards one very clear, neat solution…. Hire more women!
But what laid ahead was an entire cultural change within the company and more broadly, within the market.
Female candidates being interviewed were quick to pick up on what they felt was just ‘hot air’ This required a walk back over the organisation’s business model:
First, what did female candidates value in career opportunities? We had to do a lot more work in getting the right data here. A few research studies were done, internally and externally and a lot of data came back around choice, flexibility and the desire to take time with children in their early years without being forgotten or sidelined by the business when they wanted to ramp back up again.
Second, what was affordable? There is little point in offering things that the business could not sustainably afford. A number of business cases had to be done about savings versus costs.
Third, what did this experience look like? We had to pick a few use cases and work through them, such as:
- I have three kids and I am caught up with them at a few critical points in the day. How do you make that better?
- I am pregnant — what are the next steps and how can I use free time after the baby comes. I cannot control exactly when I get free time but I will have it — how can I keep my hand in, so to speak?
- And a less frequently discussed point, but interesting given the developments over time; Will I be respected? I am ambitious but I don’t like a work culture that is not respectful towards women.
The third was not so well developed at the time. A lot of the feedback was guarded or coded. Anecdotally, many women who worked in financial services at a higher level reported issues with things such as client entertainment in certain establishments that were the Asia equivalent of strip clubs. Others spoke of sexual harassment, especially out of hours.
Q: What were the key things realised throughout the process when it came to gender diversity?
A: This was undeniably, a culture change. And as most executives and every Change Manager knows, change is not always welcome and it has to be managed carefully.
You can’t just tell people to ‘like it or leave’ — because they would and that was a huge threat to the entire strategy. There were lots of hearts and minds working in the business and we couldn’t afford to lose them. We also had some pretty amazing managers in these teams — they had a deep understanding of what made each member of their team tick.
We also realised that this was something that couldn’t be rushed. We knew we had to take the time and get some advice from professional change managers in the field to be sure to not hector people. The key message was “this is happening, it is happening everywhere and we are not going to be left behind.” We also drew analogies to non-digital people — many sales forces adopted internet technology pretty heavily and “I don’t like computers, I like paper” was not a way to face the future. The diversity hiring strategy was the same thing, in many ways.
Something which wasn’t greatly expected by us internally was there were some issues around different groups of women . It wasn’t widespread but it wasn’t isolated either. Typically it came up between women with children who were on flexible arrangements and ones who were fairly high-powered with their career. We saw some resentments there that managers were not ready or equipped to deal with.
There was also a bit of work to do around the emergence of two streams — the ‘always on’ sales types (men and women) and the work-life balance types (predominantly but not exclusively women). This was a very competitive world — pretty well all sales staff had to carry around little notebooks of the calls they had made. One would expect to be pulled up by any senior executive and be asked — “can I see your notebook … you have not made many calls … who is your manager” etc. This was a common practice in the industry and probably still is today. The ‘always on’ women were out there, making their calls, closing their sales — they wanted to make some money and progress to team managers. At the end of the day, the top executives are hired, fired and promoted on whether they have met sales numbers. Diversity achievements will not save you if your numbers don’t cut it.
In saying that, we learned to not ignore throw away costs on hiring, training people and getting them production-ready. This is a huge cost and why good companies pay a lot of attention to staff retention. I still don’t think we have worked out, as an economy, how to utilise a large number of highly competent women who are working through those early years either as stay at home mums or scaled back workers.
Q: What was the end result?
A: A greater number of female hires that went a long way to serve their customer base better and improve the problems they were experiencing.
Q: What do you want other business owners, executives and key decision makers to know when it comes to gender diversity in the workplace?
A: Innovation requires you to challenge the status quo. For us we had to challenge “this is the way the industry does things” because a lot of that did not work. That was essential to the innovation that we were looking to deliver.
Diversity of thought is the goal, not just ticking a box to say you have ‘achieved diversity’. One thing that is probably not looked at so much is how much big companies and environments “norm-out” diversity. I had one project overseas where ‘diverse’ companies had homogenised their workforce. Sure, they had lots of diversity in some many ways, but diversity of thought had been squeezed out. I thought that was a pity as this is precisely what you want workforce diversity to deliver.
The process is about people and it is more about addition, not subtraction. And to tone down ideology wherever possible.
Knowing the importance in improving gender diversity in your teams is one thing but knowing where to start can be a little trickier. With years of experience in recruitment, employer branding and building diverse teams, the team at Hunt & Co. can help. Reach out to Carly via email, email@example.com
You can stay up-to-date with Carly Shearman by connecting with her on LinkedIn.