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Gender diversity programs: better in concept than execution?

July 5, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Mary Corrado  

According to a study done by McKinsey and Company earlier this year, nearly 140,000 women have made it to mid-level management, but only 7,000 have become vice presidents, senior vice presidents or residents of the C-suite. Yet more than 80% of the companies responded that gender diversity is a business imperative. So why then, are there so few women at the top?

The concept behind the survey was simple: If companies believe that gender diversity generates stronger business results, then you would expect them to have formal gender diversity policies specifically purposed to help women in their organizations climb up the ladder. And those programs should work.

Some CEOs don’t care whether the person in the job is male or female; they just want the best brains on the job to solve the problem. Other CEOs believe that it is important to match their populations with customer demographics. Gender diversity helps with that since many consumers making the buying decisions are female.

Sixty companies participated in the study, entitled “Unlocking the Full Potential of Woman at Work.” They included 10 Michigan companies, among them Ford, GM, Chrysler Group, Whirlpool, Kelly Services, and Yazaki. Nationally, companies such as Coca-Cola, Humana, Ernst &Young and Alcoa participated.

The McKinsey study found there are four barriers to women’s advancement: structural obstacles, lifestyle choices, individual mindsets and institutional mindsets.

As for individual mindsets, the survey says this: “Although CEOs made gender diversity a priority in more than 80% of the 60 participating companies, only about half of employees from those companies agreed that the CEO is committed to the issue. Seeing is believing, and there are few women at the top.”  

Institutional mindsets also continue to play a big part in the limitations of woman in senior level roles. The study does suggest there are too few mentors for women, and women are not invited into networks dominated by men. In one of the interviews McKinsey had with a large corporation, senior management chose not to offer a highly qualified woman a higher level job because she was pregnant. Most senior level executives feel it is too difficult for women to juggle both a career and a family. Some ignorant men and women still feel a male would be better than a female in certain roles.

Thus these individual and institutional mindsets still stifle women’s ability to reach the top.

Women don’t do themselves any favors either. Lifestyle choices also come into play: “About half of the woman surveyed said they are both the primary breadwinners and primary caregivers. Most of the men that are primary breadwinners are not primary caregivers. Accordingly, women may choose to slow their careers or shift roles to increase predictability and lessen travel. Women are having kids as men are moving up the career ladder. “

Some women surveyed …”felt they held themselves back from accelerated growth. Women did not raise their hands or even consider stretch roles.  We are our own worst enemy. Saying no too often because we are afraid we will fail.”

Some women simply don’t want to make it to the top. They feel they can’t afford the extra time required, don’t have the skill sets needed, or that being at the top is too “political.”

According to McKinsey, the characteristics of the women who have made it to the top are these:

  • Robust work ethic: Going above and beyond what is asked to get the job done.
  • Results orientation: Focus on performance and improving the bottom line.
  • Resilience: Perseverance in times of adversity and staying the course.
  • Persistence in continually getting feedback to identify their blind spots and improve their own performance. Looking at feedback with a growth mindset.
  • Team leadership: Inspiring, motivating and leading teams.

Other survey findings:

  • While 73% of participating companies nationally set gender diversity as a priority and believe there is a business case to prove it, Michigan companies collectively would seem less committed, with only 67% feeling that way.
  • A bit more discouraging for females in Michigan is that only 44% of responding Michigan companies feel that gender diversity is on the CEO’s agenda, compared to 67% of the rest of the population.

A possible reason for Michigan’s lower than average results may have to do with the state’s high industrial base. Since women typically gravitate to health care, retail, and professional services industries and not to manufacturing, the data could be an indicator that manufacturing is behind the curve more than the state of Michigan is.

Regardless, the survey’s overall message seems to be that companies are slowly making changes, but mindsets are hard to change. HR, in its role as chief truth-teller in the organization, can work on the mindset issue by helping CEOs understand the benefits of gender diversity.

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