Starting with data, proper investment, and clear messaging are all key to building a successful equality strategy
Only 4% of CEO roles and 12% of board seats in the top 500 companies are held by women. So what’s it going to take to smash the glass ceiling and achieve equality?
My view is that it’s going to take some time to shift the cultural conditioning that’s deeply ingrained in society. Many women when offered a new opportunity will question not only whether they are ready for their next big challenge, but also whether it’s even morally right to accept.
I know because I was one of those women. As often happens in life I was offered the job of my dreams just as another pivotal life event was happening. I had fallen in love and we’d decided we wanted to have children.
I desperately wanted to accept the opportunity. However, moving into a senior board-level role with the possibility I could become pregnant in the first year felt deeply unethical to me. Conversations with peers, friends and relatives confirmed this: ‘they won’t thank you for doing that’ was a theme that came up a lot. So I decided to ‘come clean’ about my personal circumstances and turn the offer down.
I sent the email with a heavy heart. Ten minutes later Federico de Nardis, the EMEA CEO, emailed back and said: ‘Rudi, thank you for your honesty. I am a father of three, and I happen to think that being a parent is one of the most wonderful things you can do in life. I see no reason why anyone should have to choose between their career and parenthood ‘ so if you’d like to still join us we’d love to have you.”
My situation was unusual. One’s personal life shouldn’t necessarily come up during the recruitment process. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where more women felt they could be open about their life choices if they wanted to, and know they would be accepted without question or bias?
In April, as part of a vision to champion equality, Maxus launched ‘Walk the Talk’: a two-day experience for 210 of our most senior women in three regions to come together to identify what empowers us as female leaders and what holds us back.
We were very aware that this couldn’t be simply a two-day ‘equality training’ programme; we had to go deep and create a true cultural shift.
Here’s what I believe made that happen:
It starts with raw data
You have to start with a very clear ‘why?’ We know that companies that have a third or more of their board seats held by women are up to 52% more profitable, thanks to a better balance of energy and diversity.
We audited our own company stats. Lindsay Pattison, our global CEO, is the only female global CEO in our parent company GroupM. And despite being a young agile company, and having an overall gender split of 54% female and 46% male, just 27% of our top (CEO/MD/board) level spots are filled by women.
It comes from the heart
Lindsay’s absolute dedication to making a difference saw her standing on stage at each event, talking from the heart about her own experience. There is something very powerful about a confident, influential, global leader opening up about the ‘gremlins’ that sometimes make her doubt her worth.
Clear, consistent messaging, backed by all leaders ‘ male and female
Our male senior leaders were 100% supportive and openly encouraged their female peers to throw themselves into this. We encountered a lot of ‘how is this equality if it’s not focusing on men too?’ so we brought them right back to the stats. The message was: there is an imbalance here that needs addressing, and we are going to do something about that, without apology.
It is backed by proper investment
Equality can’t be achieved in a lunch hour in a spare meeting room. We invested a great deal in Walk the Talk, another reason buy-in across the board was crucial. It was really important to take participants out of their day-to-day environment and provide a space for them to get creative and think bigger.
You’ve got to Mind the Gap
Even the most inspiring equality programme won’t bring about change unless supported with progressive policies that promote choice. For example, a lot of thought has gone into our new Maxus UK parental policy, offering 26 paid weeks’ leave for both female and male employees, along with agile working that supports everyone to live the life they want.
Three months on from Walk the Talk we’ve seen 15 senior promotions and our women across EMEA, APAC and the Americas feel more confident, clear about their ambitions and more connected than ever. All our markets ‘ large or small ‘ have either already run or are planning their own Walk the Talk.
There are no shortcuts to equality. But I believe it starts with an open conversation about the belief systems we want to challenge in ourselves and others.
Rudi Symons is EMEA head of talent and culture at Maxus