How CEO’s talk about gender parity – and how they should

The need for clear leadership, including sense making, direction (and target) setting and role modelling has been found critical for the success of Diversity initiatives in many studies. To date, however, the CEOs’ perspectives have not been examined by research: how do they justify the slow pace of change and what drivers for gender equality do they see personally and organisationally? What do CEOs do to support the gender agenda? These and other questions are examined by the current KPMG study conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Kelan, Associate Professor at the Department of Management at King’s College, London. Her research team interviewed five female and fifteen male CEOs coming from different industries and continents.

The recent CEO study on Gender parity found explanations for the past lack of progress in three areas: management failure, the role of social expectations and the competition for female talents. CEOs report self-critically that they lack in time, commitment and special Diversity skills to build a corporate culture which encourages female mangers to raise to higher management echelons and then remain in the group of corporate leaders. Moreover, CEOs talked about prevailing negative perception of leading women and the general problem to integrate private preferences with the demands of executive life; an issue that is mistakenly discussed in relation to female employees and managers much more often than with their male peers. The report also found that female talents are already seen as a scarce resource for which companies are competing.

The unique survey also found that CEOs genuinely want to take meaningful action and are determined to make a real difference on the Gender issue during their time in office. They put forward three reasons for the importance of gender parity: the business case, societal reasons and personal cases, the latter frequently being underutilised. By positional default, CEOs put a focus on the business case which is now confirmed by more than 130 robust studies, confirming improved decision-making, productivity, organisational adaptability, customer focus and external image. CEOs also see a social responsibility to contribute to the development of traditional gender roles. In addition, many CEOs have come to develop their personal case for gender equality, when for instance their daughters or other female family members are affected by gender-related barriers. Many see this as a powerful base for action, but everybody knows that we can’t wait for those cases to occur for all CEOs and all diversity strands. Kelan’s current report summarises six critical leadership behaviours contributing to better gender equality within organisations. First of all, accountability matters, which refers to the personal responsibility of CEOs as well as reasonable chain of command. Many CEOs have already developed personal ownership for the topic and actively searched for change agents or tried to motivate the workforce themselves. Communication and leading by example was also once more identified as a supporting leadership behaviour. The research team found that CEOs tend to pick one or two key strategic initiatives to initiate change and continually challenging related critical issues. Experience with comprehensive change initiatives have already shown that accountability is a good starting point but not enough and focusing on very few areas will fail to create the necessary broad impact on an organisation. And also Elisabeth Kenan resumes that CEOs “appear to hold back from fully utilising these behaviours in driving effective change,” but she supports the focus on one or two aspects, combined with an authentic personal leadership on the topic. Already in the past, practitioners have created specific interventions to help C-suite executives verify the necessary scope of D&I initiatives and identify the personal contribution they will have to develop and deploy. These ‘role modelling’ workshop for top executives have proven to be both adequate and effective for this target group. The related dialogue shall also lead to cascading accountability so that on the next level(s) down, more practical planning of change initiatives can happen.