It takes non-traditional solutions — and solid analytics — to ensure that women thrive at work.
By Ken Haderer
Conventional thinking says that the past two decades have seen significant gains in gender diversity and equality in the workplace, and that it won’t be long before gender goals are achieved at companies—all thanks to the right organizational efforts. But let’s take a closer look at this.
Women remain underrepresented at most workforce levels, and are not progressing in their careers as much as they could, especially at senior levels, finds Mercer’s latest global research. When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive, which analyzed workforce data for more than 1.7 million employees in 28 countries, including more than 680,000 women, identifies what organizations can do to fully engage women in the workplace, ensure diversity, and achieve business success.
The research finds that if current approaches, such as relying on flexible work schedules and leave policies, continue unchanged, only one-third of executive positions globally will be held by women over the next 10 years. Currently, in the mature economies of the United States and Canada, women will hold just one- fourth of executive positions by 2024. Despite making up 41 percent of the workforce globally, women’s highest representation among all career levels is in support staff roles. Women make up 40 percent of the workforce at the professional level and 36 percent at the managerial level, but only 26 percent of senior managers and 19 percent of executives are women.
So, what can be done? The Mercer research shows employers that are focused on holistic solutions to build diversity are most successful. By applying predictive analytics to link specific programs and talent strategies to the advancement, engagement, and retention of women, they can make inroads. This can take the form of mapping internal labor markets to analyze the flow of talent by career levels and to determine how successfully firms are drawing from their female labor pools. This data-driven approach shows how talent progresses through organizations, mapping such factors as promotions, job changes, and exits from the workforce.
In addition, the active involvement of senior leaders in gender diversity leads to greater, accelerated representation of women in executive roles. Just more than half (56 percent) of organizations indicate that their senior executives are actively involved in diversity and inclusion programs, demanding action on diversity, staying informed on diversity strategy, and pushing for results.
Ultimately, it takes vision to move the needle on gender diversity. Disruptive approaches, such as innovative pay equity teams and gender-customized investment/ retirement training, can shake the cobwebs off conventional strategies. The new research shows, for example, that dedicated teams responsible for pay equity lead to more women in senior roles, while common policies such as flexible work schedules and leave programs are, in the absence of aggressive management, associated with slower improvement in the number of women in leadership positions.
If anything, it’s the non-traditional solutions to gender diversity that can have a positive impact on an organization’s long-term ability to engage and retain female talent. This means more diverse retirement programs, including monitoring savings by gender, providing investment training customized to different gender realities, and gender-specific health education campaigns.
All of these correlate with greater representation of women at senior level, yet fewer than 15 percent of the organizations we surveyed monitor savings and offer retirement programs customized to different genders. Benefits administrators must design programs and education to ensure full female engagement and participation.
Companies can do better, and so can their service providers, in order to enable the business growth cited by companies with larger concentration of female workers. Considering the size of the untapped female workforce, greater participation of women has major implications for the economic and social development of communities and nations as well as for business outcomes.
Organization should rethink how they approach gender diversity programs. Gender strategies should be based on robust workforce analytics, aligned with overall talent management strategy. From there, they must implement new, gender-specific health, wealth, and career programs in the context of a truly enabling environment. This way diverse employees can contribute in diverse ways while aligning their different cultural/gender perspectives, experiences, and skills. This is an active management culture that supports career development.
Overall, firms must broaden their understanding of what it takes to support women, looking beyond traditional programs to the gender-specific ones. And it’s vital to collaborate with other stakeholders, taking a macro- system approach to the female talent pipeline by working with schools, governments, public health organizations, industry groups, and NGOs.
We’re at in inflection point, after all — a moment to be seized by all of us who embrace the goal of gender equality and can provide data-driven solutions to help achieve that goal. Together, we can bridge gender’s enduring gap.
Ken Haderer is the chief operating officer of Mercer, based in New York.