Right on target: Let's talk about Gender Targets

Are they working? Are they necessary?

Symes Group weighs in on the argument around gender targets on International Womens Day 2018.

by Barbara Harvey and Jessica Symes

Worldwide, women stand to lose more jobs via automation than men, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum (The Future of Jobs Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution study). The industries and roles with the largest representation of women – office and administrative roles, manufacturing and production –will be the hardest hit. For every 4 million jobs lost by men, 1.4 million will be gained, however women will face 3 million job losses but only 0.55 million gains.

That's a displacement rate of more than five jobs lost per one job gained.

More than ever the notion of keeping women in the workforce and supporting women in leadership objectives is a hot topic. But it's no longer a feel-good or compliance issue. It is now common knowledge that diversity is key to innovation, to ensuring organisations are future ready – and women are an essential piece of the diversity pie. Yet despite this, studies are revealing that Australian organisations are suffering gender fatigue and are arguing that the statistics of women in leadership are not changing as significantly as expected, despite the investment.

A report by accounting firm KPMG shows that the area where there is least movement of women in leadership is in the step from middle management to senior/executive management.

In our experience at Symes Group this is often due to the restrictions of work on offer at that level. Women who are highly skilled and educated with executive leadership capability are being offered the opportunities but not taking them.

Symes Group anecdotal evidence collected from hundreds of women in middle management suggests that for many women there is a perception that the step into an executive leadership role will have a negative impact on their wellbeing and out of work needs like care of children or elderly parents.

So where does that leave us? According to the Future of Jobs survey, organisations confirm that the two greatest contributors to shifts in gender equality in leadership are • Adjustments for work/life balance and • Setting gender targets

Key benefits of gender diversity

Companies with females on their boards have achieved higher revenue growth, profitability and shareholder returns than those without, the KPMG Enterprise's 2017 ASX 300+ Report revealed.

Appointing women to company boards helps avoid scandals, fraud and corruption, according to research conducted by MSCI Inc.

Views on Gender Targets:

In just about every aspect of business, organisations use goals and targets to drive outcomes. Early in my professional career I was told by my manager that “those things that get measured get done.” I think the same is true when it comes to diversity. It is natural for individuals to consistently gravitate towards people to whom they are similar. To change this behaviour almost always requires some form of overt goal. I think the key is for organisations to provide a clear explanation for why they would have explicit targets so as to enhance the perceived fairness of the process. I also think transparency in the process is key. Over time, as individuals' behaviours change (they use different recruitment sources, they develop more inclusive management practices, interpersonal comfort increases) it is likely that the targets will no longer be noticed because the organisation will develop a culture that supports diversity. However, like any other aspect of the organisation, monitoring diversity should remain part of an organisation’s routines.

Ian Williamson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Victoria Business School, Victoria University, Wellington

I know there is a lot of literature for and against gender targets – and whilst I know they are not the silver bullet to this complex problem I am supportive of the idea. People who argue against gender targets cite that they destroy meritocracy – which I can also see. On the proviso that targets are used in conjunction with other strategies for change which target the root cause of the issue, I can see the value in such targets. Any mechanism that helps women into leadership roles is a positive one in my opinion – provided it's positioned correctly and everyone understands the "why". Additionally, it's critical that targets are not the only thing the organisation is doing to address the gender divide – they need to tackle the issue holistically with programs that target the fabric of the organisation. In my opinion, having more women in key roles could only enrich our industry, bringing more diversity in thinking, differences in EQ and life experience. I also am hopeful that as more women take on senior leadership roles and we work towards equality in the workplace, gender targets will become redundant.

Sarah McCullough, Business Applications Manager, Pacific National

"We must accept that business in this country was built and set up by men at a time when women were not allowed to work or vote. The legacy is still around us and not that much time has passed. Without addressing that, the legacy plays a part in unconscious bias, natural selection for recruitment, policies and procedures, paths to leadership and so on. And to say that legacy does not influence women's position in the workforce is ignorant. I am not at all saying that there aren’t fantastically aware intelligent individuals in organisations. I am not saying that people are sexist or archaic. What I believe is that the legacy is too strong for individuals to overcome it yet without making clear deliberate choices towards gender equality."

Jessica Symes, CEO Symes Group

"I think having targets for all forms of diversity is an excellent way to keep these conversations front of mind. I personally feel very fortunate to work for a company who are passionately committed to giving women great opportunities at all stages of their career and investing in them to get there. Achieving gender targets is a complex and slow-moving journey, but having them and discussing them openly is a lot more effective than just sweeping the issue under the rug."

Kate Young, Graduate manager, GroupTech Westpac Group

"Women’s low participation in the workforce and leadership roles is a business issue – costing women, companies and ultimately entire economies. More deliberate efforts will be needed by governments and businesses to ensure that the full talent pool of women is educated, recruited and promoted. The moral case for gender equality has, in the most part, been won. The business and economic case is also increasingly understood. The Fourth Industrial Revolution now presents an unprecedented opportunity to place women’s equal participation in the workplace at the heart of preparations for the shifts to come."

Saadia Zahidi, Head of employment and gender initiatives, World Economic Forum executive committee member





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