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1 wrong turn and 5 key lessons on gender diversity

AUTHOR: Anke Winchenbach, Consultant, NEF Consulting

I recently attended the ‘Women Mean Business’ event organised by Policy-UK Forum, eager to hear the latest on gender diversity and equality in the workplace.

With new Government regulation requiring large organisations to publish their gender pay gap, and the Hampton-Alexander review, NEF Consulting has seen increased interest from organisations in improving their equality strategy.

Exploring issues in the diversity debate

As a passionate networker I arrived early and chatted over coffee with other delegates about diversity challenges facing their industry. We talked about gender bias in school teaching, part-time and flexible employment, and the lack of women in senior positions, particularly in the banking and engineering sector.

However, as the conference began, I began to realise something: I’m at the wrong event! I had arrived for an event specifically about gender diversity, while this event was only broadly about organisational culture change.

Unsurprisingly, I felt somewhat embarrassed about what must have seemed like odd comments about gender diversity at an unrelated event, made all the odder by the fact that attendees were more than happy to answer my questions about their diversity strategies!

When I finally arrived at the correct event the talks, presentations, panel discussions and statistics were inspiring and thought-provoking:

  • A campaign that stands out is ‘Inspiring Women’. Volunteers from a wide range of occupations, from CEOs to apprentices, had already met quarter of a million girls from state schools and colleges across the UK to inspire them to realise their potential.
  • The glass ceiling still exists and is not limited to the private sector. For example, 45% of university employees are female, but 80% of senior leadership roles in academia are held by men. With more women than men attaining Higher Education degrees, and girls outperforming boys in educational achievement, the level of underutilised research and leadership potential is striking.
  • Despite the Equal Pay Act coming in to force 45 years ago, women still earn less than men in Britain. The pay gap between remains at 19.2% despite strong evidence of the economic and productivity benefits of equal pay.
  • Women leaders are more collaborative and successful than their male counterparts; findings of a recent study suggest that firms with diverse management teams are more successful in establishing long-term environmental strategies[1]. Given millennials’ preference for pursuing careers at values-driven organisations, as well as changing investor expectations, promoting more women into leadership positions to drive sustainability is a smart choice.
  • In organisations that welcome and support part-time employees, protective bias can prevent employers from getting the most out of their employees. ‘Protective bias’ in this case is when less challenging or lower-skilled work is allocated to part-timers, based on the rationale that they should be protected as they work fewer hours. In fact, this makes employees feel less valued and dampens their enthusiasm. While it is important to respect people’s work schedules, part-timers don’t necessarily expect to be less challenged and expect to use their full range of skills and knowledge while they’re on the job.

The importance of seeking out diverse opinions

In response to a much-applauded teenage girl’s question about how to change boys’ perception of girls’ abilities, one of the few men in the audience advised that women shouldn’t “enclose yourself in female-only groups”. This highlighted that men can play a vital role in challenging stereotypes, promoting gender equality and being role models for younger generations.

Coincidentally, the ‘wrong’ event I initially attended was male-dominated. However the conversations I had at that event indicated a strong desire to make positive changes towards a more gender balanced playing field. I can’t help but think that maybe I should attend the ‘wrong’ event  more often so I can engage with both women and men on this topic. The least I can do now is share what I learned as widely as possible in the hope it inspires more people to take positive action towards a more equal society.


[1] Glass, C., Cook, A., & Ingersoll, A. R. (2015). Do women leaders promote sustainability? Analyzing the effect of corporate governance composition on environmental performance. Business Strategy and the Environment.