The fish rots from the head

Many people will be familiar with the McKinsey annual survey into diversity progress, Women Matter.

The advisory firm has been tracking progress in 441 carefully selected companies across Europe, the US, Canada and the Bric nations for the past four years. The 2010 survey, which is based on 1500 respondents within those companies, was fascinating, but a few key facts stood out.

Sixty-two per cent of men and 90 per cent of women at C-level were convinced that gender diversity is a performance driver – leaving 38 per cent of male board directors unconvinced.

At the middle management level of these firms, only 50 per cent of men thought gender diversity and performance were linked. Does this mean the lower the management level, the less convinced men are that women’s participation will improve performance?

For 33 per cent of companies, gender diversity is not on the strategic agenda at all – which in turn suggests that one in three companies are unlikely to show any improvement in the participation of women in their management.

The research also looked for the reasons behind why certain companies have more female board participation than the 15 per cent norm. These companies were shown to have a variety of programmes in place from mentoring to tracking high-potential women to financial support for training but a single common measure was commitment from the top. “CEO commitment and monitoring with the executive team of gender-diversity progress” was critical, the survey noted.

It almost doesn’t matter what you look at – diversity, productivity, morale – leadership is the key. Once the chief executive takes the issue seriously, the landscape changes.  Conversely, schemes, training programmes and quotas are all pointless exercises in window-dressing without the commitment of the boss. 

As the Chinese proverb tells us, the fish rots from the head.

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