Study: It Will Take More Than a New Program to Promote Gender Diversity In Leadership

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 10, 2017
iStock-484693620 Women Gender Power
A recent study published by McKinsey has found that while the "vast majority" of companies have introduced gender diversity programs, these initiatives have not produced much in the way of tangible results, as female representation in corporate leadership remains low. The study looked at 233 companies and 2,200 employees in nine European countries and found that 52 percent of the companies in the sample have implemented more than 50 percent of their own initiatives to increase gender diversity in corporate leadership. Despite this, the study found that only 24 percent of them reported having more than 20 percent of women in top management positions.

Overall, only 17 percent of executive-committee members are women, and women made up 32 percent of members of corporate boards for companies listed in Western Europe’s major market indexes.

One reason for these disappointing results could be that, according to McKinsey, volume alone isn't enough. Only 40 percent of respondents said that their company's gender diversity programs were implemented well, meaning that they had clear follow-up processes in place, were assessed on a regular basis, and their effectiveness was evaluated at various levels of the organization. 

Another factor might be that, despite the prevalence of gender diversity programs, it's not really a priority for corporate leaders. McKinsey said that 7 percent of companies ranked diversity among its top three priorities on its strategic agenda. By contrast, of the 2,200 employees surveyed, more than 88 percent said they don't think their company is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity. Without the right tone at the top, diversity programs could potentially feel like lip service, which might in turn explain why less than half of respondents felt those programs were well-implemented. 

A study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review points to a similar effect in the U.S., where growing numbers of diversity programs have not produced growing diversity in corporate leadership. In fact, the study found that companies that implemented the three most popular interventions (mandatory diversity training, job tests, and grievance systems) have actually become less diverse over the past five years, not more. The study's authors say this is because managers resist what they perceive to be strong-arming: they rebel to assert their autonomy. It did, however, note that voluntary measures actually do produce more diversity, indicating that a sense of fairness and autonomy is important to make these programs work. 

Regardless, though, while these programs may exist in the U.S., there could still be a matter of proper implementation. A survey from the Society of Human Resource Managers found that 66 percent of companies had no way of measuring how much their diversity programs had an impact, and 93 percent didn't even bother to measure their programs' impact. 

However the presence of diversity programs in and of themselves, regardless of form or implementation success, may have a paradoxical effect, with another Harvard Business Review article noting that companies with such programs in place ironically take discrimination less seriously. The programs can also impede further action to promote diversity: the article noted that Wal-Mart was able to effectively use the mere existence of its own gender diversity program as a successful defense against a discrimination lawsuit, an argument that has been effectively deployed in other court cases as well. This means that the very presence of these programs can actually make companies less accountable when it comes to discrimination. 

There's also, of course, the matter of general bias against female leadership in the corporate world. A study from 2015 said that men "in subordinate positions" to female superiors "experience threat, which leads them to behave more assertively toward her and advocate for themselves." The study said this effect is lessened, however, if the female superior's actions are not perceived as self-promoting or power-seeking in nature. 

With this in mind, should companies just scrap diversity initiatives altogether? McKinsey says no. Companies should, though, concentrate more one the quality rather than quantity of their programs, and have a real investment and commitment to promoting gender diversity, versus treating it as a PR or compliance measure. The McKinsey study said that companies that were able to successfully increase gender diversity in leadership positions tended to have three features in common: 

  • * Persistence. Best-in-class companies initiated diversity programs earlier, indicating that it takes time to effect tangible, sustainable results.
  • * CEO commitment, cascading down to all management levels. Companies that have built gender diversity successfully at the leadership level are twice as likely to place gender diversity among the top three priorities on their strategic agenda, to have strong support from the CEO and management, and to integrate gender diversity at all levels of the organization.
  • * Comprehensive transformation programs. Best-in-class companies have initiated change programs that ingrain gender diversity in all aspects of the business. Specifically, those companies are more likely to have change agents and role models at all levels of the organization; they also have developed and communicated a compelling change story to support the programs, policies, and processes they have put in place.

"We believe it will take government and business-led interventions to create an environment that offers women better opportunities; enables them to train for and work in skilled, better-paying roles; reshapes social norms and attitudes; and supports work–life balance. To achieve this, companies will need to transform themselves by reevaluating their traditional performance models and by challenging the long-term viability of their prevailing leadership styles."

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