How CEOs Can Put Gender Balance on the Agenda at Their Companies

Global talent and customers are more gender balanced than ever before. Women make up half the U.S. workforce, drive 80% of consumer buying decisions, and represent 60% of global university graduates. Gender balance is a big business opportunity, with huge economic implications. It boosts bottom-line results, drives growth with new customer insights, and enhances productivity with better talent acquisition and retention. Companies whose executive teams are more gender balanced report higher profitability and return on equity. Does your own company really understand — and profit from — this 21st-century shift? If CEOs and other leaders want to tap into these benefits, it helps to know the facts and to be skilled at selling the idea of gender balance to colleagues who may be less convinced.

The topic of gender balance often elicits emotional reactions from both men and women. That’s why leading through this complexity requires what I call “gender bilingual” leaders. As a CEO, do you personally understand why it’s such an important issue — for your workforce and for your customers? If not, are you willing to invest some time for you and your team to learn? Here’s the shorthand — the facts, the feelings, and the framework — you need to lead the change.

The Facts

Understand the big picture. CEOs need to understand why gender balance offers their company a competitive opportunity, not just pay the idea lip service. If you’re not personally convinced, your team won’t be either. When it comes to gender balance, a lot of people don’t get it, don’t like it, or, frankly, resist it. That’s why you as the CEO need to be well versed at explaining why you think gender balance in your organization is so important. CEOs routinely tell me that their teams “get the business case, they just need to understand how to change,” but our anonymous interviews with their colleagues quickly call this assumption into question. Getting your team to understand why gender balance is an absolutely necessity is your first hurdle. And a balance is necessary if you want to access untapped market spaces, retain top talent, and get a competitive edge over competitors. For some examples, just watch how Diageo is getting women to love whisky, how the gaming industry is struggling to catch up to the reality that the majority of today’s gamers are female, or why top leaders from McKinsey, Unilever, and Vodafone are determined to balance gender on their management teams.

Know your numbers. How (im)balanced is your company? Do you have a recruitment, retention, or promotion issue? Is it all three? Do you even know? Are men and women split by level, role, function? What’s the gender split of your customers, users, or purchasing decision makers? What about regulators, government contacts, etc.? Too often, companies are focused on analyzing only their internal balance challenge. Yet the real business opportunity lies in enhanced customer and stakeholder centricity. Make sure your team accurately identifies your own company’s issues before you start trying to solve them. Too many companies are wasting time and money recruiting more women when the real issue is that they aren’t retaining or promoting them. Men typically experience the Peter principle, meaning they are promoted to their level of incompetence, whereas women often experience the Paula principle, meaning they are underpromoted across the board. This is creating situations where many multinationals are skewing female at the bottom without ever affecting the balance at the top, to their great frustration.

A note of caution: When communicating these stats to your team, avoid drowning in data. Five slides can tell the story in any company — don’t let the trees hide the forest.

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