This article is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract.
By proactively creating a progressive, inclusive culture, business leaders can unlock the potential of women and create an environment where both women and men thrive and aspire to develop and stay. Barbara Harvey, managing director at Accenture Research, explores three ways to achieve this today.
The pursuit of gender equality in the workplace can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, and for good reason. Nine out of ten companies established since the year 1900 had no women founders, three-quarters of today’s fastest-growing companies in Europe and the US have no women in senior leadership positions and only 24 of the Fortune Global 500 will have a woman CEO this year. No wonder women employees do not thrive. In the third of its Getting to Equal research series, When She Rises, We All Rise, Accenture found that, among the 22,000 university-educated employees in its 34-country survey, women are 22% less likely to have advanced to manager  than their male peers. Conversely, men are over 40% more likely to have progressed to senior manager/director positions than their female colleagues.
But progress is being made in the workplace, and we set out to understand the factors behind it. Using an econometric model that combined our survey data with published data on employment and pay, Accenture’s research looked beneath the numbers to reveal the environments in which women actually do thrive today: companies where 95% say they love their job, are satisfied with their career progression and aspire to be in senior leadership; and where women are four times more likely to advance to senior manager. What sets these organisations apart? In a word, culture.
Our model analysed more than 200 factors that experts believe influence the likelihood of a woman advancing. It revealed 40 workplace factors that have a measurable influence on advancement, 14 of which have a stronger, positive impact on advancement. These factors point to three actions business leaders should take right now:
1. Bold leadership. Executives should have more than just the general intent to improve gender equality. They must be bolder than that. For starters, publish equality targets and hold leaders accountable for meeting those targets. And appoint women into senior roles: in companies with at least one woman leader, women were three times more likely to advance faster (what we measure as fast-track  women) than in companies where there were no women leaders.
2. Comprehensive action. To achieve true gender balance, develop policies and practices that support both men and women. Solving for women alone does not always work. For example, when women are encouraged to take maternity leave, it is negatively correlated with women’s advancement. When men are included and parental leave is encouraged, that negative impact disappears. This should serve as a reminder to leaders: even the most well-intended actions can have unintended consequences. So, consider using analytics to assess the impact of new programmes and be agile enough to adjust them to achieve the desired impact.
3. Empowering environments. People should be trusted and allowed to be themselves in the workplace. Give them the training they need to keep their skills relevant and the tools and flexibility to work virtually and remotely – and watch as women (and men) advance. Seventy-five percent of fast-track women say the workplace environment helps them perform at their best (falling to 62% of women not on the fast-track). When asked to rank what helps them most to advance in their career, men and women and fast-track women rank “being given trust and responsibility” at the top of the list most often (60%), followed by “freedom to be myself at work” (42%), “freedom to be creative” and “opportunities for training” (both 39%).
But while managers should offer employees more flexibility and freedom, they also need to protect them from harm and mistreatment. Companies must put robust processes in place that provide a channel for employees to raise concerns about harassment or discrimination in a safe environment without fear of reprisal. Our study showed that women are nine times more likely to experience sexual discrimination or harassment in organisations where the 40 factors are less prevalent.
So, what is the bottom line? To determine the potential impact of culture on gender equality in the workplace, we used our model to estimate what would happen if all employees were exposed to the same factors as today’s top 10%. The results are encouraging:
- The current ratio of 34 female managers for every 100 male managers would improve to 84:100
- Today, women earn US$73 for every US$100 a man earns; this could increase to US$92
- Women’s earnings could rise by as much as US$2.9 trillion across our 34 surveyed countries
Gender equality is an essential element of an inclusive workplace – and when women rise, men do, too. When more of these factors are present women are more likely to thrive and advance but, equally, men are 23% more likely to become a manager and twice as likely to reach the senior-manager level. Indeed, companies make real progress in the workplace when men and women are equal.
The author thanks her colleagues in Accenture Research: Dominic King, Rofhiwa Netshivhambe, Haralds Robeznieks, Joanna Syczewska and Jonathan Thomas for their invaluable contributions to this study.
Read Chapter 5: Violence against women: A new policy priority for OECD countries taken from the OECD report The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle