We know that there are benefits in having a diverse workforce. The European Commission Factsheet on the ‘Economic Arguments for Women on Boards’ shows that more gender diversity on boards does lead to improved company performance, better mirroring of consumer decisions, better quality decision making, improved corporate governance and ethics and better use of women as talents.
According to Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, author of The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors, risk aversion could be a key factor for these benefits. A 2012 Credit Suisse study showed that when there is at least one female director on the board, nett-to-debt equity ratio was lower compared to companies who have all-male boards.
I distinctly remember a story from one of the top female CEOs in Malaysia’s finance industry who shared that, in her years being in all-male meetings, she often found herself as the lone member saying: “Wait, let’s take a step back”.
That helped them make the right decisions for the organisation, something she believes is one of the key values that women can bring to the boardroom.
A quick Google search will show you some of the key gender diversity initiatives and best practices around the world but here we can look at three approaches that can help an organisation kick-start its diversity agenda or refine their current model for a sustainable impact.
1. The individual approach: Emotions
Claire Shipman, an ABC news correspondent and author of The Confidence Code, posits that the confidence portrayed by a woman is not necessarily equivalent to Mad Men bravado and ‘playing hero’.
She believes that distinctions in gender exist not only in biological terms but also in management and thinking styles. When a person, regardless of gender cannot be authentic in their style, then it is likely to negate effects of diversity since we all become the same kind of leader or manager.
Hence, it is important to acknowledge these differences and manage the perception that results from these differences. Because diversity is not just about data, common stories we hear are:
“Her family needs her more, let’s not burden her.” “Are you sure we should consider her for that role in Philippines? She is getting married soon right?” “Well, she’s been on flex work, I’m not sure we can say she has contributed as much as the rest of the team.”
And then, even more common are the stories women tell themselves:
“I can’t be a good mother, I’m staying late at the office again.” “If I take that secondment, am I too ambitious?” “I think I should hold my thoughts until someone asks me; it will be more respectful.”
Do women feel safe to share their thoughts and emotions, especially those that diverge from stereotypes? Are we ready to accept a different perspective of how we think a woman’s role should be?
Shame and guilt are the primary emotions that keep many women from leaping onto the diversity bandwagon. Being able to bring concerns to the surface without judgment could be a foundation for the success of diversity initiatives.
Most organisations that promote this form of openness use sponsors, mentors and awareness training, but what about day-to-day engagements? One way to keep the openness on the ground is to encourage frequent and consistent feedback.
In the same research on millennials by PwC, setting clear targets and providing regular future-focused feedback was found to be important to 50% of the respondents. A culture of constant and regular feedback is likely to keep leaders abreast of the challenges women face. It is also a simple enough skill to be adopted by everyone who is not directly championing the diversity agenda.
The essence: Create an environment that allows for regular, consistent feedback to signal psychological safety and direction to women who may feel challenged in the day-to-day work environment. It is also an actionable skill for a majority of firms that have yet to ride on any diversity initiatives.