Why gender equality needs active leadership

Feb 11, 2019
Despite much public debate, gender inequality persists. It is now time for leaders to make good on their words and act.

As a classic armchair tennis fan who engages typically around the grand slam cycle, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the coverage that followed Andy Murray’s recent emotional announcement of his probable imminent retirement.

What was remarkable to me was the almost equal balance between Murray as the ‘tough as teak’ competitor who followed his dream from Dunblane in Scotland to become a multiple grand slam winner and that of Murray as a champion of gender equality. His role in championing female athletes, by forcefully arguing for parity of tennis purses, chiding the authorities at Wimbledon for not playing more women’s matches on centre court and, memorably, for hiring a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo, at the height of his career.

Or maybe what is, in fact, remarkable is that such acts or statement of equality appear to be so rare in the sporting arena.

The business case

In language perhaps more familiar to us as accountants, the business case for gender balance has never been clearer. INSEAD research shows that diverse businesses benefit from higher levels of creativity and innovation, greater customer satisfaction, more informed investment decisions and increased performance. But despite all the talk around gender equality in the workplace, women remain under-represented at all levels of management across all industries. Everyday discrimination continues to be a reality. McKinsey data from 2018 is very stark in this respect. Women have to provide more evidence of their competence than men while having their judgement questioned in their area of expertise. Women are also twice as likely as men to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position. Being the only woman in the room is still a common experience and, consequently, women are heavily scrutinised and held to higher performance standards.

There is no silver bullet that will achieve greater gender diversity. Good intentions are great, but companies must show concrete actions. It is clear from INSEAD’s research that achieving true gender balance requires more than just adding women to your workforce. Companies must increase their total talent pool by actively embracing female return-to-work programmes. Organisations must also acknowledge that there will be varying levels of motivation internally to achieve gender balance. Seeking to engage not just the advocates, but those sitting in the middle is crucial to effective staff engagement.

Personal experience

All of this might have been something I was vaguely aware of until it became part of my professional life. I am proud of having been part of the diversity and inclusion journey across the Canada Life and Irish Life Groups in Ireland and the UK and, more recently, as part of this Institute’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. While my initial motivation to step up was probably driven by a personal commitment to ensure a strong leadership voice for LGBTQ+ issues, my learning journey across the wider diversity and inclusion agenda has been profound.

We know we are early on our diversity and inclusion journey, but that comes with the advantages of learning from those who are further along the path. Some of the work we are doing in my organisation at a group level include:
  • The formation of a ‘Women in Leadership Group’ early in 2018 to support and promote existing and aspiring female leaders within the business, running focused development workshops for some of our pipeline of female talent which aims to advance opportunities for women into leadership roles;
  • The overhaul of recruitment policies and practices through a diversity lens;
  • The expansion of maternity and paternity policies to encourage full take-up; and
  • The introduction of unconscious bias training across all management tiers.
At board level, diversity is now a key part of the debate related to culture. In my own experience, it drives a much deeper awareness of – and focus on – the people aspect of business strategy. It also drives accountability at executive level; setting targets and measuring progress can be challenging, but it does drive activity. And yet we know we have so much still to do.

And sometimes you are pushed into action, as we have seen with legislation across the European Union (EU). In the United Kingdom (UK), the Gender Pay Gap Report was published in April 2018 and momentum has continued around this to address the challenges it highlighted, albeit the data shows the gap only gradually closing between 2012 to 2018 at a national level. Canada Life UK is a signatory to the UK Women in Finance Charter and has committed to having 30% of senior management positions occupied by women by the end of 2020 and 35% of senior management positions occupied by women by the end of 2023. Similar reporting will follow shortly in this country and companies need to prepare for it, but there is an opportunity for some to embrace and lead on the challenge.

Turning intentions into reality

So, what can leaders do within their own organisations to advance change? Consider some of the actions below:
  • Be a vocal and visible sponsor and advocate for women;
    Undertake a ‘root and branch’ review of your systems and processes to identify biases;
  • Challenge yourself and your recruitment partners to plan ahead and build a strong pipeline of diverse talent for your business;
  • Invest in the development of your workforce equally with tailored programmes to meet different diverse needs; and
  • Set an objective for senior leaders to keep gender diversity on everyone’s agenda.
Good intentions are great, but they are no substitute for on-the-ground activity. As accountants, we are respected voices within our businesses and we have a perspective that can lead or push gender balance as a business priority. With all the momentum around gender diversity, now is the time get off the fence and show your support for this positive wave of change.

John McNamara is Managing Director of Canada Life International (Assurance) Ireland and sits on the Institute’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.