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International Women’s Day: Why the Gender Dividend is the Business Case for Gender Equality

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer

“There isn’t a glass ceiling, just a thick layer of men” quipped the ever sharp Laura Liswood last week, and this is my favorite description to date of what is preventing women from advancing to executive management and the boardroom.

Others talk about the sticky floor or the marzipan layer preventing women from getting to the top. In the run up to the 100th International women’s day, themed “Equal Access to Education, Training and Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women,” the discussion turns to creating a more robust pipeline of female leaders as the statistics don’t show great progress overall – as The White House Project reports, only about 16-18% of leadership roles in almost any industry are held by women. Yet women have long outpaced men in education (with almost 60% of college graduates now female), and capable, highly trained young women are flooding into the workforce.

Some companies are incredibly advanced in their gender work because they take it seriously. They understand, from both a human capital and a consumer perspective, that women are the next big business opportunity. Building stronger, more effective companies means developing and utilizing all of the talent available.

The Business Case for Gender Equality is Business

Last week, I attended several events to celebrate International Women’s Day and one of which was hosted personally by Erika Karp, Managing Director and Head of Global Sector Research at UBS Investment Bank. Erika assembled a room full of women and men who understand the value of networking with women.

“The vision for this event was to ignite the intellectual and commercial dynamism of powerful women from across disciplines. The tangible outcomes are already exceeding my expectations. Business plans are being drawn, deals made, and entrepreneurship being fostered,” Karp said.

Beth Brooke, Ernst and Young‘s Global Vice Chair of Public Policy, Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement, was the guest of honor and she spoke of how this year the organizers at Davos, the World Economic Forum’s annual conference, presented a great incentive by offering a 5th delegate invitation to attending companies that sent at least one female delegate to the conference. This highlights how practical business incentives with clear benefits to a company can really make a difference to their approach to gender equality and representation. Gender diversity is no longer seen as a compliance driven, box ticking exercise to bring one of your brightest woman to the table – who arguably should be there anyway.

In a recent Huffington Post Op-Ed, Brooke explores the effects of the increase in female executive voices at Davos. She also calls women the new emerging market – behind China and India, they represent the next “the third billion” of consumers, employees, leaders, or entrepreneurs. She points out, “Who would ignore that size of emerging market?”

But it’s not just a matter of buying what women are selling, or incentivizing inclusion. Women need to be financially backed as well. As we’ve discussed before, funding is also a necessary part of women’s success in science and technology fields.

Monica Dodi, Managing Directors of the Women’s Venture Capital Fund attended the event and pointed out the business opportunity for venture capitalists and angel investors.

“Despite many research studies demonstrating that gender diversity improves innovation, productivity and company valuations, only about 5% of venture capital is invested annually in gender diverse ventures! Nevertheless, my partners and I at the Women’s Venture Capital Fund are seeing tremendous deal flow from high potential women entrepreneurs in high growth sectors such as digital media and sustainability.”

Study after study has shown that diversity improves decision making – it’s time for funds to put put that money toward ventures with more diverse leadership.

The Gender Dividend – High Performers and Avoiding the Opt-Out

After the taping of Deloitte’s international women’s day webcast, I had the pleasure of speaking with Laura Liswood, author of The Loudest Duck and senior advisor to Goldman Sachs. Laura, who was moderating the webcast “The Gender Dividend” succinctly hit the nail on the head, when she said, “Diversity management is about being effective as a leader or a manager. Ad hoc programs and polices are necessary but not sufficient to change any dominant culture.”

The webcast featured Jim Wall, Deloitte’s Chief Diversity Officer, who had the specific purpose of offering insights into why the investment in women is a smart decision.

The conversation emphasized the need to make investing in women a deliberate action, and the UK based Managing Partner for Innovation and Brand, Heather Hancock, spoke of bold moves in the UK to accelerate leadership development by interventionist steps. One example was the introduction of a special mechanism designed to ensure that women had a chance of being elected to a governance board. Are interventionist steps contradictory to a meritocracy? The reaction to the suggestion of quotas is always an emotive one, and this past week The Institute of Directors in the UK issued a statement to the government report “Women on Boards” by Lord Davies.

Miles Templeman, Director-General of the Institute of Directors, said:

“We are pleased that the report stops short of advocating gender quotas for the boardroom. Quotas would have been incompatible with a meritocratic approach. A greater diversity of people on boards in general is necessary, and this clearly means we need more female directors. The way to do this is to increase the pool of female senior executives from which directors can be recruited. Improving flexible working opportunities for aspiring female executives will be central, with companies rather than Government taking the lead in creating these opportunities.”

That sounds fair, but stating the obvious is not actually going to make it happen around developing talent pipeline or creating flexible arrangements for men as well as women.

Accountability is needed around leadership development by managers and how stretch assignments are allocated. Bold moves and affirmative steps, like those suggested by Wall, Dodi, Brooke, and Karp are needed to make the needle move on gender parity.

Keep reading as we keep you ahead of the thought leaders and examine how these thoughts are being translated into actions in 2011 and beyond.