Grant Thornton’s 2021 Women in business research shows a lift in the number of women in senior management globally, over that 30% tipping point needed to catalyse further change. What has driven this progress?
It’s a spectrum of factors. I believe there’s a continuation of the shallow, upward trend we’ve seen for a few years. The #MeToo movement has become part of everyday life, and there’s a greater acceptance of the need to be more thoughtful about your gender balance. The Black Lives Matter movement has not only encouraged people to think differently about diversity, but also helped black women in the workplace. Those have been two really positive steps.
However, we’re still looking at change from barely any women at all in senior roles to slightly more women. It’s a start, but it certainly isn’t the endgame.
Encouraging diversity and inclusion
The push to get more women into senior management has been going on for a long time. Why are we still talking in terms of beginnings?
Transformational change always takes a long time. You can’t just flick a switch, and you need to have a significant change of approach within organisations to make change happen. Businesses have to be doing a range of things that encourage people to go for those senior roles, and also create an environment where diversity is truly recognised and encouraged.
Role modelling is a way forward. If an organisation gets one woman on the board, it’s a lot easier to get the second one. The progress is upwards at the moment, but there’s absolutely no reason to take the foot off the pedal.
Has the pandemic created a window of opportunity for inclusivity to be accelerated?
We won’t really know what changes COVID will have made for a couple of years. It could both help and hinder the ability of an organisation to be more inclusive. Virtual working may help some women get into roles that may have been less accessible and by taking out commuting, make those roles more manageable. The flipside is the pandemic could be disadvantaging some women, especially those who are handling multiple duties from home schooling to caring for elderly relatives. Also, are they less visible at home than they might have been in an office environment?
Is COVID changing the business landscape in a way that will drive more gender diversity?
COVID has shone a light on the skillset that is traditionally described as more ‘female’ than ‘male’. For example, the need to have more empathy in the current environment is huge. If you’ve got people on furlough, if you’ve got people struggling with their personal and work circumstances, if you have people struggling with their physical and mental health, you need to understand and appreciate these challenges and how they impact on how someone is working.
And the world is more uncertain and volatile. Many businesses will be thinking about safeguarding their business, perhaps being less radical and less aggressive in what they’re doing. This may have a short-term negative impact in terms of growth and innovation but may provide a longer-term stronger foundation. Better management of risk has again been associated as being a strong female trait.
On a positive front, there are many businesses saying they’ll be investing more in their people and in research and development in their organisation. As we come through, hopefully, the worst of this pandemic, there will be opportunities for people to benefit from that investment.
The reality for businesses depends on the sector they are in and the environment they’re working in. If you’re working in the hospitality sector, life is pretty tough. In the grocery sector or some of the online sectors, things have held up well despite the challenges of COVID. Beyond that, the more agile, entrepreneurial mid-market is able to move at pace. This shows through in the way that they’re more able to adapt and take on good practice and pivot to move to meet the market.
Does business innovation include creating a more diverse staff and leadership team?
A business is, on the whole, about its people. You can have great innovation, but if you’re not looking after your people, you’re ultimately not going to succeed. Obviously, technology has been a massive part of the last year, from basic infrastructure, to being able to Zoom or use other online software to communicate, through to actually using technology in a far more innovative way to deliver services to clients.
Businesses that have truly looked after their people during this time have created a workforce that has trust in its employer. We have seen for many years that businesses with diversity at their senior level are more likely to be able to think broader, more laterally, consider more options, and get away from groupthink. They tend to be more innovative. This will be helping them get through this crisis in a constructive way.
A shifting D&I landscape
One of the shifts we’ve seen is an upward trend in the number of operational leadership roles held by women. What’s behind that?
Not that long ago, if you found a woman on a board, they were usually the HR leader. It’s fantastic to see women now also being the CEO or the COO or the finance lead. It’s reflective of businesses investing more in their people, helping develop them, and those roles opening up to a greater variety of individuals.
My sense is that the investment businesses have been making in bringing in a broader pool of people, putting in place mentorship and coaching, is beginning to pay off. They’ll invariably have a D&I policy that they’re rigorously using. They’ll have a leader who’s able to talk in a very constructive way around why D&I is so important. Top talent looking to join an organisation are more likely to expect a business to have a clear policy and approach in this area.
Has D&I has slipped down the agenda due to basic concerns of staying in business, or is it being recognised as more important than ever before?
Sometimes in a crisis, people drop the things that are difficult – their marketing spend and learning commitments, and sadly things like D&I policies – in favour of operational efficiency.
But good businesses do not do that or quickly go beyond it, and they appreciate that if you remove your ability to set your workforce up for the future, that has implications – you can lose a generation - and that can set you back many years when the market does pick up. It also undermines trust in a programme if it gets dropped at the first challenge. Businesses that have taken their foot off the pedal will probably regret it in future years.
Is the normalising of flexible working going to change the understanding of how people need to work?
I hope it does, because I’ve been saying for about 25 years: “bring on the change”. If the world has shifted to see beyond going into offices nine to five, sitting within four walls and moving towards hybrid ways of working, that could be a major positive from the last year. Flexibility is really achievable in many roles.
When I started work, if you weren’t physically present at your desk, the assumption was that you weren’t working. The fact that, during lockdown, work is getting done, and people have stepped up and delivered – perhaps even more than they were delivering before – shows that you can manage these things in a different way.
You still need to be connected, however. Someone coming into a new job needs more day-to-day interaction to understand the role, to get to know their colleagues. Also, for those employees at earlier stages of their careers: are they getting the right training? Do they feel comfortable reaching out when they get stuck? Are they desperately trying to show that they can cope, but actually need more guidance? There are many aspects to home working that need careful consideration.
How can businesses take advantage of the window of opportunity presented by the pandemic to do things differently?
D&I policies aren’t just for lockdown: they’re forever. You’ve got to make sure that anything you’re doing to encourage diversity and inclusion isn’t a fad or a project or a ticking of boxes. It needs to be a real commitment to long-term change, and that might mean what you do today doesn’t have a marked impact for five years.
It’s not all going to change overnight, but commitment at the top is vital. Successful businesses which do D&I really well have it embedded in all that they do. It’s part of their lifeblood.
According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, nine out of ten businesses now have at least one woman in senior management. But the actions of leaders will determine the direction of travel from here. Take a look at our latest report to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the D&I landscape.