8 March 2016 | By Zahra Bahrololoumi Community

Finding the reasons to act

Data helps make the case for change when it comes to gender diversity – and understanding it properly helps identify where change is needed. 

Alongside her day job as a senior account lead in Accenture's Resources business, Zahra Bahrololoumi sponsors human capital and diversity initiatives. British born, with Iranian heritage, she’s passionate about ensuring everyone can “bring their full self to work” – and argues that achieving this, through both leadership and measurement, delivers clear results for the company.

Q. There’s obviously a lot of talk about diversity, and gender in particular, but do you think things are actually changing?
A. Some people are very frustrated with what they consider to be slow progress, but I do think things are changing. The sheer number of conversations around this are becoming the norm. And the more an employer talks about it, the more action will follow.

Within Accenture, a couple of things have made a significant difference. The first is leadership: the whole of the UK executive team openly and visibly support the gender agenda, and it starts right at the top with our CEO making very public statements about our targets, about our commitments around equal pay, the composition of the workforce over time, and recruitment. My role is also at board level, and that is a massive signal to our population about how important diversity is.

The other thing is measurement. Accenture isn’t unique in this, but it really makes a difference when you can express targets, such as our commitment to have 40 per cent of the workforce female by 2017, and measure progress against them. And that spans everything from recruitment to development, progression, and retention.

Q. Has the data turned up any surprises?
A. Our graduate intake has been fairly typical and we recruit equitably at that level, but as progress through the senior levels and the percentage of women declines. All of our initiatives were around retention – the natural assumption being that we were losing women.

But when we dug into the data we found that our women are more loyal than men. And although we always considered ourselves as promoting equally, we’ve noticed that, in some cases, there were some anomalies. The same went for hiring: the more senior the level, the higher the percentage of men coming in.

Now we’re going through a phase of even more in-depth analysis and we’re looking at generational differences. Is there a difference between Gen X and Gen Y, between performance and progression, when you compare men and women?  Do we need to offer more opportunities for men to step off the career fast-track as much as we offer women a chance to step up?

Q. What are you most proud of?
A. The fact that we’ve taken a holistic approach. We call it sustainable gender balance because we want whatever we do now to become a sustainable legacy. We’ve stopped looking at the higher end of the chain and decided to look at the whole lifecycle. And we know we’ve got to generate the marketplace for recruitment too, so have early engagement on the STEM agenda. A recent event in January was attended by 1,800 young women between the ages of 11 and 15 in five locations, supported by many volunteers.

Q. Are there things that you’ve learnt along the way which haven’t worked so well, where you’ve had to challenge what you are doing?
A. We take succession planning seriously to make sure our females are in line for what we class as frontline roles, through balanced leadership reviews. But when we devolved that responsibility and told each of the heads of the industry groups what the policy was, it didn’t work so well. It’s only now that they’ve seen the data that they’ve seen the case for change, and they feel empowered to make a difference.

Q. How optimistic are you for the next generation coming into the workplace?
A. I think will reach a tipping point, certainly within Accenture. Already we’re nearly 38 per cent women, and we’re at 19.9 per cent at a leadership level against a target of 20 per cent. We will revise our target as soon as it happens. And looking at the talent we’ve got and how enthusiastic they are about the initiatives we run and how they participate and help and support, I am very optimistic.

Q. Do you think the policy environment – the talk of targets, gender pay gap reporting – is encouraging for firms, or would Accenture have done it anyway?
A. From an Accenture perspective, we were doing it anyway. One policy that has really helped with that dialogue is shared parental leave. We’ve encouraged male colleagues that have taken it up to talk about their experience, and because they are vocal about it, it has normalised some of the challenges that some of our women felt they couldn’t talk about in coming back to work.

Gender pay reporting is another very important piece of our holistic approach – and I welcome the initiative. For other companies, it may highlight the need to focus on it, and, depending on the type of company, what gets measured gets done and what gets published tends to gets done even better.