Setting ambitious gender targets for the year 2020 has been a popular diversity strategy for many leaders of large organisations.
The problem is that the year 2020 is now not that far away. But we still haven’t seen widespread progress on a lot of those targets, nor on workplace gender diversity in general.
Michelle Redfern (pictured above) believes too many leaders are hoping the gender diversity problem will just fix itself with time. So they set targets, and then forget about the matter.
Michelle runs Advancing Women, a consultancy aimed at moving gender diversity from conversation to action.
Her key message is that there is no messiah coming to make gender diversity a reality for companies both large and small. Nor is a superman (or woman) on their way, or even a ‘silver bullet’.
Indeed, there are no magic, mythical or mysterious gender diversity fixes that will suddenly arrive at a convenient time.
So, leaders would be better off just getting started on identifying and aiming to address the particularly problem areas across their business units and teams. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has often stated: “Done is better than perfect”.
“I keep hearing about all these 50/50 targets for the future, the year 2020 seems to be the preferred date at the moment,” Michelle says. “I look at my calendar and think, ‘you do realise that it’s already the year 2017 and you have to make serious systemic changes to remove the barriers stopping women before you can ever hope to see a significant shift in the numbers.”
Michelle also brings her personal experience to the game. First appointed a leader at the age of just 22, she says she’s been through the “journey of assimilating.” She reported to no senior women for the first 12 or so years of her career, and frequently found herself in all-male teams and environments.
“So I basically learnt how to be a man,” she says. “I learnt how to talk loud. Shout Loud. Swear loud. Because I knew I wouldn’t be accepted as a girly girl. So I assimilated. The problem is that you lose a part of yourself by doing that.”
Michelle later realised she wanted to be true to herself, and work in an environment where she would not only be accepted as a woman, but celebrated. When she eventually started working for a female CEO in a gender-balanced executive team, she says something remarkable happened: in four years, they never once discussed gender diversity.
However, Michelle was well aware the experience was unusual, and still is unusual today. In 2017, women hold just 16% of CEO roles and 37% of manager roles according to stats from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, meaning the norm in leadership is still predominantly male. “We need to fix workplace cultures and say that inclusion is about all sorts of personality types, work types, thinking types,” says Michelle. “Women don’t need to be fixed. The system needs fixing.’
Currently, the favoured approaches to ‘solving’ gender diversity include creating women’s groups and mentoring programs in organisations – along with setting those ambitious target for the year 2020 (although we can expect that to probably shift to 2025, or even 2030).
But Michelle suggests leaders need to move beyond one-off initiatives and programs to dive deeper into the real issues at play. That starts by getting the number on gender diversity at all levels of an organisation, determining the problem areas, and then aiming to have some quick wins in shifting those numbers immediately.
“It’s incredible how many people I meet who still don’t know their numbers,” she says. “They know their financial numbers, but not the numbers regarding the makeup of their employees. That’s the first step and will drive all action from there.
“You can’t solve every problem at once,” adds Michelle. “The diagnostic piece is so important in this. Know where the problem is and what you need to fix. Generic strategies just do not work. You can’t just apply something that worked in one company to another, because every company is different.”
She adds that it helps to create practical steps and actions that business leaders feel they can own, and then feel a sense of accomplishment for achieving. Meanwhile, linking gender diversity targets to bonuses and management performance will ensure the issue gets attention.
Michelle personally works with organisations of all sizes on advancing gender diversity, but says she has a particular interest in companies where she can make a fast and significant difference. As an avid sports fan and being on the board of a VFL team, she loves working with sporting bodies.
“Sport is an area where actively targeting gender diversity – across memberships, players, on boards and elsewhere – can ultimately shift significant social change. It can make a difference to women who’re directly employed, to female members, and ultimately to society too. Just getting more women involved in sport can have such positive effects on health, confidence and other areas.”
Sport is also an area that’s had significant wins in recent years, given national moves to create women’s competitions, to professionalise women’s team and improve women’s pay.
While there is considerably more progress to be made in sport, it’s a start. And at this point, it’s making a start that matters most.
Michelle’s Advancing Women helps organisations of all sizes achieve real change on gender diversity.