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Gender Diversity: How C-Suite Can Lead the Change


Gender diversity has been a hot topic in technology for years and many boards have also made strides. But studies indicate a lot more needs to be done to encourage women in leadership roles. A recent report by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles makes a strong business case for gender diversity at the top. The survey says that diversity initiatives are more successful when CEOs and other C-suite leaders take ownership of diversity programs. (Read the full report here)

The study observes that those organizations that make mentoring and growth opportunities available for women and most importantly imbibe a culture that encourages that foster greater participation of women leaders, do well financially and get greater attention from investors. This is only possible when the CEO and other C-level members commit to making concrete changes and set up accountability mechanisms for doing so.

Mentoring boosts diversity

The research shows CEOs and organizations that encourage mentorship programs, their women workforce is more likely to enter and stay in tech-related leadership positions. In a Harvard Business Review article, titled: “Why Diversity Programs Fail” authors Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor at Tel Aviv University, mention mentoring as an effective way to engage managers which can have a bigger impact on diversity—perhaps because they activate engagement in the diversity mission and create intergroup contact. (Read the HBR article here)

“An organizational system of strong male and female mentors is needed to coach women through the career journey, teaching them to leverage their own core talents,” says Lisa Zynn, Group Head – Global IT & Business Services at Apollo Tyres.

Mentoring allows employees to not only understand and adopt new skills, but also attain more support for work-life balance. This can lead to better employee engagement over time. For women, it helps in developing belief in her capabilities and willingness to mentor others. As Lean In founder and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, said: “When women see that they’re effective in mentoring each other, as they move up in their careers and get older, start mentoring younger women.”

A transparent hiring and promotion process

Researchers also agree that a great deal of progress could be made simply by introducing transparency and clarity into hiring and evaluation policies. While most top bosses and HR managers often prefer the freedom of unstructured interviews, studies show that structured interviews—built around targeted job-related questions and tests—produce superior results. They are better at predicting high performance and less subject to unconscious bias.

Like, researchers at Stanford have found that ambiguous standards for performance evaluations lead to a disadvantage for women. Without structure, evaluators are more likely to rely on gender, race, and other stereotypes. By contrast, when evaluation criteria are clear, transparent, and measurable, women can compete on a more level playing field.

Focus on organizational culture

Several studies have shown that gender disparity doesn’t stem from the inability of women to perform at top levels. For example, Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards had significantly higher returns on equity (53%), better sales (42%), and a two-thirds greater ROI than companies with all-male boards. Instead, the problem comes down to culture: It turns out that most organizations simply do not provide an environment that supports diverse leaders or encourages everyone to strive for senior positions.

For instance, in most cases, it is seen that networking opportunities and promotions go to men in tech careers at a higher rate than to women. Likewise, company events and trade gatherings often provide platforms where male tech workers exhibit sexist attitudes and behaviors toward their female colleagues, even questioning their domain knowledge.

“Despite focusing on their skills and staying current with industry trends, the cultural norms still need to change in employment, family and educational settings,” Priya Dar, CIO, Godfrey Phillips India says. She adds that a change in mindset would help eliminate the problem of gender discrimination, so every woman can feel confident, supported and safe as they pursue their dreams.

It is little wonder then the lack of cultural support from CEO and board leads to decreased confidence, ultimately making it much more difficult for women to pursue leadership roles. Rather than addressing the existing problem as solely a gender balance issue, C-suite should work to create a culture of inclusion that fosters diversity and encourages everyone to strive towards leadership opportunities.

Change starts at the top, but should not stop there

While effective, meaningful change has to begin at the top, the process should not halt there. A McKinsey study on Women in the Workplace notes that while companies have made considerable progress at the very top, unfortunately that progress does not always make its way down to middle and front-line management that report a lower commitment to gender diversity.

This is again similar to the Heidrick & Struggles study that shows almost 89% companies try to empower women to join leadership position in India, but the total share of women in Indian workforce remains as low as 27%. This indicates that top management must make gender diversity an all inclusive issue.

Why men matter

Finally, as men executives dominate the C-suite – researchers see them as a critical resource in diversity efforts aimed at eliminating gender bias.  “Men have a unique opportunity as they still make up 80% of the executive ranks and even more than that at the CEO level. This is not a gender issue, but a workplace issue,” says Julio A. Portalatin, former President & CEO at Mercer in a report titled: When Women Thrive that details men’s roles in increasing gender diversity in the workplace.

Of course it would be wrong to say that companies are not doing their bit in terms of fostering gender diversity in the workplace. However, studies affirm that companies still have a long way to go. They need to double down on their efforts in order to make a major difference.

A commitment to diversity and inclusion must involve reforming culture, as well as practices and procedures, initiatives such as mentoring and training – with a particular focus on hiring and promotion and creating men CXOs as allies. Experts believe the future companies on the cutting edge of diversity will also be the companies on the cutting edge of innovation.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at