Organisations are building some “quick wins” toward their diversity targets by boosting the numbers of senior women in traditionally female-dominated areas of business, but gender diversity experts say they need to broaden their approach in order to make real progress.
According to Emberin founder Maureen Frank, many organisations subject to the ASX gender diversity guidelines – which require companies to set targets and report on the representation of women in senior executive roles – are currently using a strategy of “Let’s get some quick runs on the board”.
“They’re going for the quick wins to start with. And certainly if you look at some of the areas where there has traditionally been a number of senior women – HR, corporate communications, legal, even finance to some extent – those are areas where there is a very obvious talent pool of women who are senior, and who they can call upon to fill those roles.
“That’s a start; it starts to set the right tone. However, if companies are really going to conquer this issue, they’re going to have to start looking at putting women in operational roles.
“That’s the key to it. You want women who are running profit and loss centres and you want them to start bringing the women in their organisations through into operational roles.”
Karen Morley, co-founder of Gender Worx, says that the “quick wins” strategy makes sense “in some ways, because it’s much easier to move women into roles in a context where there are already women – into female-dominate areas. It’s just easier to do.
“There are more risks associated with moving women quickly into male-dominated areas.” (See this article for more on this topic.)
But, she says, these organisations are the ones taking a compliance approach to the guidelines and might struggle to maintain the momentum needed to reach their targets.
Frank says organisations need to realise that for most, meeting targets will require a long-term focus.
“A lot of companies have put a lot of energy in, in the last 12 months, but there’s still not a huge amount of progress in most. So I think it’s important to recognise that the journey has just begun. And there are no quick fixes or silver bullets, but this is going to require persistent effort probably over the next five years.”
Further, many will need a new mindset for hiring, she says.
“Traditionally, companies have had very rigid mindsets around the way people progress in an organisation. That’s been what I describe as a masculine model – ‘That guy has been in the organisation for 15 years; he’s ticked all the traditional boxes, therefore he becomes the head of that department’. So I think they need to start thinking laterally, and more broadly, about how they hire and recruit into those senior management roles, and they need to recognise that subject matter expertise and experience does not necessarily make a really good senior manager.”
Act now to avert a male backlash
Both experts warn that without providing a high level of education about gender diversity, organisations risk a “backlash” from their male employees.
According to Frank, there is a high degree of knowledge, at very senior levels, of the business case for gender diversity, but “middle management still feel very threatened”.
“I think there’s still the mentality that it’s… positive discrimination against men. So there is a fairly urgent need for education of men at middle management level.”
Morley agrees, saying, “It’s really important that organisations carefully manage the perception that people are missing out on jobs”.
“It’s certainly one of the anxieties that people have. There’s a concern that one of the consequences of introducing gender diversity guidelines is that talented men will find it increasingly difficult to get roles.
“There’s a lot of discussion about that in terms of board positions – there are men who are saying they’re board ready, but they’re not able to get access to new roles. And a part of the reason is that women are being given priority for that.”
Morley says that “on a statistical basis”, the recent increase in the percentage of women being promoted to board positions does mean that men are not being promoted into those positions, “so… there is slightly less opportunity for men”.
“But let’s be clear that those appointments are still not 50:50 appointments,” she stresses.
“We have to be clear that we’ve not had a level playing field; we’ve not previously had ‘merit’, in terms of placing people in senior positions and board positions. So for a period of time we may have to go back in a different direction, and that’s just what it will take for us to get to better representation of women.”
Frank says that on an individual level, she does not think that men are being discriminated against and missing out on positions and promotions.
“In my experience, although [organisations] very clearly want to see a candidate slate that has equal representation of men and women on it, they are still absolutely picking the best person for the job.”
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