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Beyond the Inflection Point, When Will Women Thrive?

For women, the past year was remarkable in its disruption and its dialogue. Women broke barriers and broke their silence, earning not only the right to drive in Saudi Arabia but also, and more importantly, exposing abuses of power in the entertainment and media industries, and among government officials. A social movement seized the world’s attention, and one of its most vital goals must be to focus on increasing female workforce participation and empowering women.

Amidst the headlines and the hashtags, leaders and organizations need to ask themselves: “Are we making progress or creating an echo chamber?” When it comes to gender equality, the data remains stark, according to The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 from the World Economic Forum, which was introduced in 2006 as “a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress over time.” The report benchmarks 144 countries on their progress toward gender parity across four thematic dimensions—economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment—and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups.

The most eye-opening statistic from this global study? “Given the continued widening of the economic gender gap, it will now not be closed for another 217 years,” it says. A gap of such magnitude may be hard for us to process as more than an abstraction, but it’s easier to comprehend when we look at the forces facing women in the workforce. For example, millions of jobs primarily held by women—mainly administrative and service jobs—are threatened by the rise of automation. The slow progress toward pay equity plays a huge role in the gap.

A Future-Focused Agenda for Women

This week at Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, as the yearly World Economic Forum gets underway, the opportunity to drive the conversation on the gender gap—and explore solutions—is back. Set for Tuesday, January 23, Mercer’s fourth annual When Women Thrive session will advance the goal of creating a future-focused agenda for women, businesses and societies. When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive is Mercer’s global research and solution platform, founded to help organizations grow through the active and productive participation of their female workforce.

Men make up 80 percent of the executive ranks. They have a unique obligation to be out in front advancing women’s participation and engagement in the workforce—personally and on behalf of their organization.

Indeed, the current #MeToo moment is a rare inflection point for women in society, as we find ourselves thrust into a broad and potentially game-changing conversation about how women are faring in the workplace and beyond. Everyone – from investors, board members and leaders to rank-and-file employees and customers – is unexpectedly aligned on this issue and paying attention like never before.

The choice facing all of us is whether we are going to seize this opportunity to accelerate progress or watch the potential for progress slip away. The fact is that things could go either way. If we get distracted—if we pay lip service to gender equality but fail to apply the true accelerators of progress in our own organizations—then we may never achieve the results we want.

So what is this model for change? It is essentially the same one that we have been sharing since our first report: a formula for advancement that is uncomplicated but requires great focus and determination. To ensure that women thrive, organizations need:

  • Proof. Organizations must understand what is happening to their female talent. Simply acting on a hypothesis or anecdotes won’t advance women in a meaningful way. The good news is that organizations have abundant data about their workforce and a multitude of analytic tools and methodologies that make it faster and easier than ever to mine that data for critical insights.  
  • Leaders with passion and personal commitment. Analytics, while essential, are not enough. Organizations must have leaders courageous enough to lead change. After all, the purpose of analytics is not simply to study a problem but to solve it, and this requires leaders at all levels of the organization ready and willing to act. This is the much bigger challenge for many organizations, because while analytics can be outsourced, passion can’t. There has never been a more promising moment to engage leaders and create alignment through an organization.
  • Practices and programs that support women’s careers and enable them to bring their whole selves to work. This includes diligent pay equity processes, bias-free promotion and performance management processes, and programs that acknowledge and support women’s disproportionate responsibility for caretaking and unique health and financial needs.

While these building blocks are critical to women’s progress, equally essential are linking mechanisms that connect an organization’s efforts for maximum impact. HR may be sponsoring mentoring programs and business resource groups, Legal may be doing pay equity analyses, and Talent may be conducting employee engagement surveys and looking at high potentials. But if no one is linking together these efforts to ensure they collectively deliver the desired results, the organization’s effort is likely to fall short of creating real change.

Accelerating Towards Change

A number of “system accelerators” give us a growing sense of excitement and confidence about the future, both for women and for the organizations and societies they help power:

  • Advances in big data combined with cutting-edge analytics, which are making it easier than ever for organizations to help women—and all employees—successfully navigate the future of jobs.
  • Committed and engaged leadership, from the board and investors down to team leaders, with heightened interest in issues such as talent development, pay equity and safe working conditions.
  • Innovations in change management, which are helping organizations achieve desired outcomes—not by changing people but by identifying and implementing the drivers of new behaviors.  

When we began this work in our own organization and in others, we knew we were on a journey that would take years to show real results. We are thrilled by the results achieved by some, but there is still a long way to go to truly help women thrive. It will take perseverance and long-term commitment. It’s also vital to emphasize that men matter. They make up 80 percent of the executive ranks and even more than that at the CEO level, and they have a unique obligation to be out in front advancing women’s participation and engagement in the workforce—personally and on behalf of their organization.   

When it comes to preparing for the long term, women face a “perfect storm” financially: They are paid less than men are on average, have more gaps in employment, engage in more part-time employment and are more risk-averse investors. All of these factors potentially reduce the amount of money women are able to accumulate for retirement—yet a woman’s retirement tends to last on average three years longer than a man’s does.

Too often, though, the responsibility for effecting change that would empower women at work is placed on HR management, but what’s required is more than programming within the human-resources silo. The larger goal of a thriving female workforce must be the focus of business leadership, of senior executives who play the role of organizational consciences, educators, and goal-setters. This week at Davos is an opportunity to inspire change from the top down, at a time when the world is listening to women as never before.

Patricia A. Milligan

Senior Partner and Global Leader, Multi-National Client Group for Mercer

Pat Milligan is senior partner and global leader, Multi-National Client Group for Mercer.  She also currently serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council.

Julio Portalatin

Vice Chairman of Marsh McLennan
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