Tackling the challenge of cultural change

Reports by McKinsey, the consultancy, have been some of the most powerful forces in building the economic argument for improved gender parity in the workforce.

This month, McKinsey publishes Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy, a report that explores why, in spite of all the well-acknowledged economic arguments, highly skilled women still do not progress up the career ladder.

According to the authors, Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, 38m more women entered the US workforce between 1970 and 2009, contributing an extra 25 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product.

Companies have made substantial strides in removing some of the obstacles to women’s career progression, they say. Corporate America now recruits a “fair share” of women, offers flexible working options to help parents and opens informal networks to women, but still too few women make it from middle management to vice-president or beyond.

Drawing on data from the non-profit Center for Work-Life Policy and Catalyst, the consultancy, the report says women represent 53 per cent of new hires in the US, 37 per cent of first promotions, 26 per cent of vice-presidents and 14 per cent of executive committee members. The research shows that women at executive committee level are at a double disadvantage because 62 per cent of them do not have line responsibility, while 65 per cent of men do. No wonder, then, that the percentage of female chief executives of Fortune 500 companies remains at 2-3 per cent.

The authors surveyed 2,500 men and women and 30 chief diversity officers, and reviewed more than 100 reports. They conclude that it is subtle cultural bias that in the end squeezes talented women out:

“A CEO’s personal crusade to change behaviour does not scale. A diversity programme by itself, no matter how comprehensive, is no match for entrenched beliefs. Targeting behavioural change generally leads only to an early burst of achievement followed by reversion to old ways.”

They point out that achieving cultural change is one of the hardest management challenges. Leaders at all levels – from the C-suite to the front line – need to be engaged and rewarded according to their implementation of policies that encourage women into line roles. Good intentions are not enough, they say; “now we need good results”.

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