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Gender balance: a toolkit

What’s the goal?

Women currently lead 23 countries and governments on every permanently inhabited continent (with Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago leading the way for North America). Research has found a correlation between female participation in leadership and superior organisational performance in fields as diverse as hedge fund management and peace processes. From all of this research, I was particularly interested to read the February 2020 report from Cass Business School on ‘Gender Diversity and M&A Outcomes’. Following a comprehensive analysis of 16,763 merger and acquisition transactions over a 20-year period, the report’s authors found that boards with 30% or more female representation outperformed all-male boards in both the short and long-term. The gender of the individual CEO was less crucial than the gender balance of the decision-making body as a whole. This is not a call for all-female decision-making, but for gender balance.  

How do we achieve it?

You may have heard the example of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra adopting the practice of having musicians audition behind a curtain. The practice was followed elsewhere and from 1970 to 1993, female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the United States increased from 6% to 21%. Today, women make up one third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and half of the NYPO. However, as pointed out by music critic Anthony Tommasini, while the NYPO had one Black musician in 1969 (the violinist, Sandford Allen), today it also has only one Black musician (the clarinettist, Anthony McGill). (I recommend reading the full article, as Tommasini goes into detail on the other factors affecting musicians’ outcomes in the classical-music universe before they reach that audition behind the curtain.) In effect, Tommasini argues, the NYPO pointed at the curtain and said, ‘Look - pure meritocracy!’ Many organisations - whether pointing to CV-blind interviews or other policies - also hope to find themselves meritocratic. Any improvement is good news, but organisations need to look ‘beyond the curtain’ and keep testing their theories. For example, 50:50 gender split at entry level is an increasingly common reality for many organisations. But if that ratio becomes more and more lob-sided the higher up the organisation you go, organisations should reflect on the factors influencing this pattern.

What data do organisations need?

Senior leadership could consider defining key metrics to determine success in gender balance, setting a clear process for the collection of that data and reviewing the results to stress test underlying theories about meritocracy on an on-going basis. It may be helpful to disaggregate data not just by sex, but by other factors to better understand whether there may be hidden, gendered outcomes at play, for example, by asking about caregiving responsibilities or the impact of Covid-19. With time to reflect on and discuss that data in a safe, non-judgmental space, senior leaders can come to their own conclusions about what success currently looks like in their organisations and how that might change in the future. Once this understanding has been achieved, policies can be planned and implemented - without the expectation of getting everything right the first time. Organisations should be free to experiment, measure and replicate what works. 

In summary

Gender-balanced groups bring a wider variety of angles and expertise to the table and therefore tend to make better decisions. The majority of organisations are not yet gender-balanced, but the shortage of women in senior roles is not inevitable. With commitment from management, data analysis and willingness to try out new ideas, organisations can change for the better.

Views expressed are those of the author, Helen Broadbridge, Tax Solicitor


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