Overcoming Challenges of Gender Diversity at the Top

December 5, 2017

There is a strong business case for advancing gender equality. In addition to the social and moral imperative, there is an economic imperative to recruit and retain women in the workforce. Yet, we still have a long way to go before we reach gender parity in the upper echelons of U.S. corporations. According to research by McKinsey, it will take more than 100 years to achieve this goal. During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Conference: Opportunity Forward, women from BNY Mellon, AT&T, Inc., and the International Finance Corporation met to discuss strategies to accelerate change.

Retain and Cultivate Talent

BNY Mellon believes that people are the company’s greatest asset. Director, Head of Americas – Diversity and Inclusion at BNY Mellon, Yau Cheng, described how the company applies the same rigor to fostering a growing, thriving business as fostering a growing, thriving workforce. Everyone has a unique voice and the company endeavors to empower individuals to bring their voice to the table. Just as the company identifies and grows smart investments, they spot and grow talent to achieve maximum value.

Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion, Talent Development at AT&T, Inc. Melissa Omet described how AT&T has developed a pipeline of women in middle to upper management. Recognizing that talent alone is not sufficient for receiving a promotion or a stretch assignment, AT&T developed a new program to give 150 high-level women across the company access to senior leaders. Women were paired with a senior male officer and divided into cohorts of 5-6 employees. The cohorts met quarterly to go over articles and discuss challenges faced in the workplace, culminating in a summit attended by the CEO. The program was overwhelmingly successful; 100% of men said they wanted to be involved.

Men are key partners in enabling women to achieve their full-potential. Gender equality is not a zero sum game. Men benefit both at home and at work when women have opportunities to succeed. Yau said that it is the fiduciary duty of leaders to be good stewards of their assets; we cannot deliver value to our stakeholders if we do not fully support our people. She recommended recognizing high-performing, diverse teams, identifying key aspects of their success and replicating and scaling it. To ensure women are prepared and get promoted, she recommended asking targeted questions about succession planning and working with HR to ensure women receive the preparation they need to succeed.

Provide Support to Working Parents

One of the challenges in retaining top female talent is the lack of a strong flexible work culture, that would allow women to better balance professional and personal responsibilities. Face-to-face interaction is intrinsic to client work. Yet, fostering a corporate culture that accommodates flexible work arrangements would benefit all employees. BNY Mellon is updating their facilities to create a more dynamic work environment, including leveraging video to facilitate teleworking. Yau emphasized that while family leave policies are important, it is equally important that it is culturally acceptable for men and women to take leave and that they will not be penalized for availing themselves of this policy.

A key barrier to female labor participation rates is the lack of affordable, accessible childcare. Two weeks ago, the IFC launched Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare. As Head of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Gender Secretariat, Henriette Kolb described a growing trend in which the public and private sector are mandating the provision of childcare. The report includes ten case studies of companies that implemented family friendly policies and reaped the benefits. The business case for employer-supported childcare is clear; as access and affordability of childcare increase, productivity and retention increase and absenteeism decreases. Henriette said that we need to create a care economy market to better support working families. To realize this goal, we need to estimate the market size and develop business models for care programs.

Leverage Data to Develop Effective Strategies

Recruiting and growing top talent in the information and communications technology sector is particularly challenging given that fewer women pursue STEM degrees. AT&T’s Melissa Omet emphasized the importance of building a pipeline and implementing retention practices. While AT&T has a high female retention rate in the industry (88%), there is always room for improvement. Through exit surveys, big data, and engagement surveys, AT&T is analyzing available data to better understand why women leave and determine where to target interventions to stem the tide. She challenges other companies to do the same. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), voluntary, employee-led groups designed to promote diversity and inclusion, serve as another useful resource in informing policies, practices, and benefits. Women of AT&T, the company’s biggest and oldest ERG, has been particularly active on this issue.

Benchmark Progress

To demonstrate the organization’s commitment to gender equality, benchmark progress, and identify areas for improvement, the IFC became EDGE Certified. The Global Business Certification Standard for Gender Equality, commonly referred to as EDGE Certification, assesses an organization’s policies and practices of providing equal pay for equivalent work; recruitment and promotion; and leadership development, training, and mentoring; flexible work conditions; and organizational culture. Henriette described how the Certification allows organizations to identify points of intervention, benchmark progress against competitors, and implement a plan to improve organizational policy and practices. A third party assessment, particularly when it is also applied to competitors, can help to stimulate change. Following certification, the IFC launched a HeForShe commitment to achieving gender parity in senior levels. While it is a work in progress, taking a stand and unifying around a common goal is the first step.

While achieving gender parity in corporate America's top ranks is a tall order, it is well worth the investment. Fostering a more diverse and inclusive workplace positively impacts the bottom line. Retaining and cultivating talent, leveraging data to develop more effective intervention strategies, and benchmarking progress are just some of the ways companies can overcome challenges of gender diversity at the top.