Back to the future to speed up gender parity?

 February 02, 2016

By Alison Kay, EY’s Global Vice Chair - Industry

Imagine what it would be like to turn back the clock on your life. Blink your eyes and you lose 37 years. That’s right, nearly four decades. Sadly, this is the situation we are in right now on gender parity. Despite movements like the 30% Club and government action to get more women in leadership in countries ranging from Germany to India to United Arab Emirates, gender parity is actually getting worse.

When we launched the gender parity countdown clock at Davos last year, it was a countdown from 80 years. That was bad enough. But the World Economic Forum’s latest research - Global Gender Gap Report 2015 - shows it will now take 117 years to close the gender gap. What’s going on?

Know the facts

There are a lot of preconceptions out there: girls don’t choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, women don’t want to be leaders, women don’t like working in male-dominated environments. So I set out to research the facts – and found most of these are misconceptions. Large numbers of girls are studying STEM. And while leadership is not for everyone, in my job I’m regularly meeting bright, talented women who haven’t reached board level. So what’s happening in the workplace?

When I looked for statistics on women in leadership in Power and Utilities globally, I couldn’t find them. So colleagues and I commissioned research that quantified the scale of the problem: our 2014 Women in P&U Index revealed that just 4% of board executives in the top global utilities were women. And three years later, this figure has clicked up just one percentage point, to 5%.

Why is the gender parity clock going back instead of forward?

A few months ago we initiated a new study to understand what business leaders across the top seven industry sectors* are doing to achieve gender parity. While this research will be ready in a couple of weeks, the emerging data paints a sobering picture. The good news is this: there is overwhelming agreement among the 350 business leaders we spoke with that gender diversity is essential to business performance in today’s disruptive business landscape. Business leaders also agree that more needs to be done to attract, retain and promote women into leadership. However, despite all this, there is little deliberate action or even agreement on how to make this happen.

Our research shows that few companies have the right talent management practices in place to develop female leaders. In fact, less than one-fifth of the business leaders surveyed have structured programs focused on attracting, identifying, retaining and promoting women. Clearly, this is not good enough. If women don’t get the right sponsorship and strategic opportunities throughout their careers, their chances to make it to the top are much smaller.

You get what you measure

I believe the adage that you get what you measure — unfortunately, our research shows that there is very little measurement and reporting on gender diversity, even at the most basic level. Of the few companies that do have formal gender diversity programs, less than half measure them and when they do, their focus is only on those few women who make it to the top. While this is important and valuable intelligence, companies equally need to understand the pipeline of their female talent base so they can best develop these future leaders.

Finally and perhaps most worryingly, we found that two-thirds of respondents expect to see little change in the gender diversity of leadership in the next five years. Despite all this, many expect gender diversity to arrive in the next 10 years. How? That simply isn’t going to happen based on current approaches. More needs to be done to put gender on the agenda: more structure, more measuring and more reporting. The talent is out there. The business benefits are waiting.

What’s next?

A year ago at the World Economic Forum, we launched Women. Fast forward - EY’s answer to putting gender parity squarely on the global business agenda. At EY, we’re on our own journey to close the gender gap. Today, half of the college graduates we hire are women and this year so were 31% of our new partners. But we know we have much more work to do, and we’re committed to doing it.

We returned to Davos with an even greater understanding of the gender parity landscape and a greater sense of urgency. There are proven benefits to getting more women into leadership. Gender parity is not just about equality; businesses need to embrace diversity of thought and experience to better navigate the disruption that is transforming most industries today. And every business leader is in a position to act now to make gender parity a reality - faster.

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