International Women’s Day | How greater gender balance “enables” businesses

This year, International Women’s Day centers around the theme “An equal world is an enabled world”. In business, this is a message that’s been proven to be true time and time again.

Numerous studies have linked a gender-balanced workforce to better organisational results. Not only does research indicate that companies with greater gender diversity in management positions are 21% more likely to experience above-average profits, but one study suggests that employees – both men and women – are happier with their career, plan to stay with the company for longer, and are more likely to recommend the company as a great place to work if it’s committed to gender diversity. Gender diversity is also commonly cited as a productivity booster, with research showing that hiring women in non-traditional roles could increase output by as much as 25%.

The business case for a gender-diverse workplace

There are a multitude of reasons why a more equal workforce makes good business sense. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that, as in all areas of life, men and women bring different skills and perspectives to the table. In the workplace, this catalyses innovation, generates faster and more creative solutions, and leads to higher overall revenue. It’s hardly surprising, then, that gender-equal companies are often seen as a more attractive investment prospect, signalling to investors that a company is competently run and operationally sound. In this way, gender initiatives are more than just a quota-filling exercise or moral objective; they are a business necessity that play a significant role in driving companies forward.

And it’s not just investors and shareholders who are recognising the value of gender diversity; it matters to employees too. In fact, according to a study by employer review website Glassdoor, 67% of job seekers take workforce diversity into account when evaluating an offer. Even if diversity doesn’t directly factor into job seekers’ decision-making, there’s no disputing the fact that high-performing companies attract a wider range of talent, and a wider range of talent creates high-performing firms. This cyclical relationship is often overlooked by employers.

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of job seekers take workforce diversity into account when evaluating an offer

Still work to do

Despite an abundance of evidence to suggest that greater gender diversity is a smart business move, there are still significantly fewer women in senior leadership positions, and in some male-dominated sectors such as technology and engineering, women are hugely under represented at all levels. Shockingly, back in 2018, there were more men named David and Steve on the list of FTSE chief executives than there were women, and in 2019, women held just 29% of senior management roles globally.

While 2019 was the “strongest year of progress” for board representation since 2011, it’s clear that the UK’s push towards gender equality has been slow. Add in the fact that 78% of Britain’s largest companies report a gender pay gap in favour of men, gender equality feels like a long way off.

The gender disparity in UK workplaces isn’t attributable to a single factor. Instead, a combination of such things as heavily ingrained attitudes, unconscious biases and general apathy may all contribute to the problem. Not only do 41% of managers say they are simply “too busy” to implement diversity initiatives, but a recent analysis of 75 countries has revealed that 90% of people are biased against women – a troubling statistic that highlights just how much work there is to do to level the playing field.

In addition, studies show that women are twice as likely to be called “bossy” than men – perhaps highlighting people’s negative perceptions of assertive women. In truth, these ideas may be embedded long before we enter the working world, with gender norms reinforced from an early age, in which case employers will have a difficult task on their hands if they are to dismantle these deeply rooted attitudes.

So, should employers make a conscious effort to improve gender diversity?

The statistics certainly suggest so; however, simply hiring more women and pushing them through the ranks won’t miraculously bring about benefits for your organisation. Indeed, while research demonstrates a correlation between gender diversity and more productive companies, this is only true in cases where diversity is “normatively” accepted. In other words, it is not enough to pay lip service to gender equality; in order to reap the benefits of diversity, there needs to be a widespread belief that it is important.

For employers, then, there is an important lesson to be learnt from this year’s IWD theme: gender inclusion should not be viewed as an obligation but a powerful way to unlock your organisation’s potential. With the government’s Hampton-Alexander review having set the ambitious target of women occupying a third of board seats in the top 350 listed companies by the end of this year, only time will tell if employers have really gotten the message.