Enough with the diversity talk

Companies should stop playing lip service to gender inequality and focus on results, writes Catherine Fox.

A senior male executive was proud as punch as he described the revamped recruitment regime which had been introduced in his workplace a few months ago with the aim of getting more female employees.

“We have a 50-50 shortlist goal now,” he explained to a diversity seminar. “When we are interviewing candidates, our aim is to have women making up roughly half the interviewees, and to have at least one woman on the interviewing panel too.”

One observer asked what difference the new approach had made to the number of women actually appointed to jobs.

The executive didn’t know. It turned out he hadn’t really asked for that information although he promised to check.

As it turned out, the changes had resulted in more suitably qualified women reaching shortlists, but there had been virtually no change to the number of women appointed to jobs.

Set goals and measure the results 

In recent years there’s been growing pressure on organisations to get their diversity credentials in place as voluntary reporting regimes came into place and attention to the gender gap increased.

But for some employers, the temptation to reach for policy options that tick a box, and grab a headline, but don’t necessarily deliver much in the way of results, has been hard to resist.

This attention to the ‘optics’ of a new rule without following up on its impact has been dubbed ‘gender washing’. It’s particularly obvious in the gap between rhetoric and reality when public reporting reveals very little change in the number of women employed, promoted and retained.

While setting targets for women on shortlists isn’t a bad strategy, just plonking it into existing structures without carefully monitoring and supporting it – such as providing training and checklists to avoid bias in decision making – means it is much less likely to meet the goal.

The same can be said for offering a range of flexibility options, senior women’s mentoring schemes and sending everyone off to unconscious-bias training.

Most of these can be effective if they form part of well-planned strategies which ensure employees are encouraged to access them and results are regularly measured.

Make the objectives transparent

That’s not always been the case. Although attention from senior leaders to the problems women face in the workplace has been a big step forward, and helped to legitimise the issue as a mainstream business concern, there’s still a long way to go in translating processes and policies into action and outcomes.

In its 2016 report, Diversity: ASX Corporate Governance Council Principles and Recommendations, KPMG noted most companies disclosed measurable objectives for improving diversity. However, very few set, or disclosed, transparent quantitative objectives – such as stipulating that 30 per cent of director seats are to be held by women by 2018. And most of the measurable objectives reported involved an action, such as setting up a new process, rather than an outcome.

Those companies which disclosed clear, quantifiable objectives showed a higher level of gender diversity than those which didn’t, and publicly committing to them really does drive good diversity outcomes, KPMG found.

It recommended organisations examine the Male Champions of Change approach to setting ‘Targets with Teeth’, which ties executive-incentive payments to achieving diversity targets. This kind of accountability helps to ensure diversity targets are designed to be tangible and progress measurable.

The penny is starting to drop

Take, for example, the corporate hand wringing and occasional denial over the size of the gender pay gap. The use of pay gap audits and other tools to track what is happening is starting to shift the focus to action.

The Male Champions of Change group released a report called ‘Closing the Gender Pay Gap in August 2017 to help address the gap, which currently sits at about 15 per cent in Australia. The report explains the various ways gender pay gaps can emerge and identifies the workplace conventions and fallacies that fuel them.

‘Closing the Gender Pay Gap’ also “provides methodologies for assessing and ensuring equity through different remuneration types – fixed, variable, total and benefits – and other pay-related mechanisms such as commissions, location loading, non-monetary opportunities and benefits, and flexible working”.

Approaches to prevent and respond to like-for-like pay gaps include:

  • the timing and frequency of gender pay gap reviews
  • the interrelationship with performance reviews and processes
  • the relationship to recruitment, retention and salary-setting
  • addressing the gender wealth gap through, for example, superannuation payment policies.

And men at the top, such as Steve McCann, managing director and group chief executive officer of Lendlease, talked about tackling both the symptoms and the cause.

“We’ve learned that gender-based pay gaps can be both common and insidious – particularly in historically male-dominated sectors,” he said. “Having regular, scrutinised and actioned reporting is a game-changer – real-time access to relevant data becomes hard to ignore and demands action.”

This focus is about effectiveness and efficiency. Because when results are slow to emerge or simply non-existent, gender washing turns into gender fatigue and hard-fought support for change quickly dissipates.

Enough with the diversity talk; more action and results are what’s needed now.