While businesses globally are increasingly pursuing gender equity, there is a danger that this movement might not yield desirable fruits as a result of treating it as a special project which is separated from business fundamentals.
This view emerges from statement issued by Natalie Maroun, Chief Strategist at LRMG Performance Agency. “Isolating women in the workplace and highlighting their progress can actually become counterintuitive in the long run,” she says.
With women representing 52% of South Africa’s population controlling 60% of global spending and representing 60% of university, it is not surprising that businesses globally are increasingly following diversity programmes.
The introduction of women’s networks, leadership training, coaching and mentoring and conferences all specifically aimed at women, are designed to make women feel more comfortable and celebrated. Natalie Maroun, Chief Strategist at LRMG Performance Agency says that while these initiatives can be rather successful on an emotional level, the problem is that they make women’s issues diversity issues, rather than business issues that affect all.
Maroun says the challenge is to find ways for businesses to effectively develop and retain female talent. “Building women’s programmes and strategies designed by women, for women, to bring about change may sound great – but how effective is this strategy really?” questions Maroun.
So how do we make women’s issues, business issues?
Maroun says businesses should not diminish the importance of gender balancing by merely focussing on reaching BBEEE targets and being compliant in order to fill a quota. “Name it, recognise the value in it, prioritise it, put together a vision for your company and work towards it giving it the significance it deserves,” she says.
It is also advisable to drop the word “women” and rather focus on phrases like ‘gender balance’ and ‘gender neutrality’. She says when companies use the word ‘women’ it suggests that men do not need to be involved in the solution. ‘Gender balance’ and ‘gender neutrality’ are more inclusive and should be used in policy creation and in the establishment of sustainable balance.
Lack of balance often begins with mindsets and cultures. For something to change, leaders usually need to change first. In South Africa, we have made progress in terms of our gender equity in the public sector, with 44% of the national cabinet being women and with very high percentages of women in public positions, compared to other countries. In the private sector however this is not the case with males still dominating the boardroom.
“To effectively change mindsets, executives need to understand the risk of continued inequity and the significant benefits of balance. They will then be able to accept balancing initiatives and will collectively drive this change with a common vision and understanding,” she says.
Make sure that gender targets are focussed on balance, not on women or on merely reaching compliance and BBEEE. “The aim,” says Maroun, “is to add value to your organisation and your culture, not to force the wrong people into positions and attempt to make them work effectively – that will cause damage in the long run that will take years to correct.”
In summary, businesses need to create realistic targets around balance on all levels, not just in lower and middle management positions and they need to celebrate both male and female styles in the workplace – that way no one feels marginalised. “If you want the competitive edge in attracting and retaining top talent and in creating sustainable success, you need to get gender neutrality right.
It’s time to learn to better connect with women and men, offering them an environment that allows them to celebrate their greatest strengths,”