25 April 2017 Interview

Boston Consulting Group: gender diversity

Do we know what really works to make our workforce a more even mix of women and men? Boston Consulting Group partner Claire Tracey revealed at the CBI Diversity and Inclusion conference which strategies yield measurable results

Q: What do diversity and inclusion mean to Boston Consulting Group (BCG)?

A: BCG's mission requires us to attract, develop and retain the best talent. We want to deliver value and be agents of change for our clients, our people, and society. We know that having a diverse workforce helps us perform better. It creates an open environment where there is mutual respect for new ideas, regardless of tenure or background. It enables us to build varied – and more innovative - perspectives into our client service. Our clients demand that. 

Q: Why did BCG pick gender diversity to focus its research on in particular?

A: Gender diversity remains a critical priority – not only for BCG itself, but for our wider society. There is still so much to do here even though it's a much discussed topic. Having spoken to senior clients, we saw that companies are investing, sometimes very heavily in cash, effort and opportunity cost, to

It's critical for institutions to create a tailored diversity programme – rather than simply hoping something works

achieve gender diversity. But progress can be slow.  Some of our clients feel they are doing all the right things, but don't know which initiatives are really the most effective. We felt that there was space for research that looks at all different types of gender diversity intervention and explores what matters most for women - particularly at the mid-management level - and what generates the best ROI.

Q: Historically, what have been the problems associated with gender diversity?

A: Gender diversity is such a multi-faceted topic. Our research respondents highlighted obstacles to do with recruitment, retention, advancement, leadership and culture. We see a range of issues large and small that women are facing into as they climb the ranks of UK institutions. We found some major misperceptions – interventions that senior managers think are more effective than they actually are, and others that they undervalue. Each institution has its own particular issues and starting point. For instance, some struggle to recruit enough women; others have a great pipeline but problems with retention. We think it's critical for institutions to understand their particular 'pain points' and create a tailored diversity programme – rather than simply kicking off a comprehensive programme of initiatives and hoping something works.      

Q: What kind of strategies do most companies in the UK currently undertake regarding gender diversity?

A: Fewer than 3 per cent of people said their organisation wasn't committed to gender diversity. Our research respondents cited an average of 10 initiatives underway in their organisations – so there is a

It's about companies doing what creates the strongest impact

huge amount of activity underway. Most popular interventions include anti-discrimination policies, bias training, flexible and part-time working, setting voluntary targets, tracking KPIs, sponsorship, mentoring and networking. 

However, we found that a surprisingly low proportion of women have had exposure to their company's gender diversity initiatives, or felt that they personally benefitted from them. So there's a lot getting lost in translation and we need to fix that. 

Q: Why choose to focus on measurable results for diversity – isn’t it something we should all work on regardless of outcomes?

A: We should not confuse activity with progress.  Achieving a more diverse workplace is a significant cultural transformation and it's tough to do. It's also going to take several years for change to feed through fully into much larger numbers of women at the top. So it is critical to keep up momentum by ensuring that what we implement has an impact and we can celebrate some successes along the way.  Focusing on measurable results gives us that. 

Concentrating on what works also stops frustrating ‘wasted’ effort – 55 per cent of respondents who felt an intervention was ineffective said that it was because it wasn't important enough to make a difference. Another 33 per cent said that it was implemented poorly. If UK companies could redirect all their current effort on interventions that are more effective instead, this would have a major impact on the success of gender diversity initiatives.

Q: Your research suggests that companies might choose to deploy different kinds of action depending on what progress they have made on gender diversity to date. Why? How might action plans differ?

A: For us, it's about companies doing what creates the strongest impact. If some of the interventions that create the highest ROI are not yet in place, companies should focus on those and not distract or dilute their programme with other 'nice to have' initiatives. Conversely even real front-runners in diversity feel that they have room to do more.

Focus on installing effective and productive flexible-working and part-time policies

Gender diversity is a complex issue because of the many aspects of a workplace environment. If each company, with its own challenges, creates a tailored programme to tackle their specific challenges it allows the root causes to be more effectively confronted.

For example, a company that has made little progress needs to start by tackling the basics such as identifying the starting point with clear data, by team and by cohort, and building a clear company-specific financial and business case for change. They need to make sure the whole executive team buys in and is accountable. They should also focus on installing effective and productive flexible-working and part-time policies. In contrast, a firm which is a front-runner on gender diversity will have most of this in place but will need to keep up momentum to truly embed the culture. They can consider setting different ambition levels for different parts of the organisation, having looked for  hotspots where there is still work to be done. They can also work within their supply chain or wider ecosystem and go after particular areas such as enabling women to be internationally mobile.

Catch up on the discussion from the CBI's 25th April inclusive workplaces event

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