• Gender diversity provides multiple perspectives which are credited with inspiring value creation strategies.
• A lack of structured support continues to pose a major challenge, preventing women from taking up senior leadership roles.
For the past decade or so gender diversity has been at the forefront of most diversity initiatives that organisations in Hong Kong have been undertaking. For lower- and mid-level positions in most industries, there are plenty of statistics showing that women are well represented in the workforce, even in arenas where gender diversity has been harder to achieve, such as the finance sector. However, progress at senior-level leadership positions and board representation continues to lag behind.
Whereas most organisations and sectors have achieved a gender-balanced intake of young talent, there are often only 20% to 30% women in senior leadership roles. The situation is substantiated by the fact that among Hong Kong's more than 2,500 publicly listed companies, only 14.9% of the board members were women in 2021. The low representation of women on listed boards has prompted policy changes from Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, which starting in 2024, will require at least one woman to sit on the board of any publicly listed company in Hong Kong.
The HR function can help break the cycle
A lack of gender diversity in organisational leadership is an extremely complex issue rooted in history, societal structures, and psychological conditioning. While each individual situation and each organisation are different, numerous studies and surveys indicate the reason behind the absence of female talent at the C-suite level is linked to several contributing factors, including the pervasive resistance to the efforts of women to reach the top ranks of management (commonly known as the “glass ceiling effect”), unevenly distributed access to resources, as well as self-made barriers such as a perceived lack of opportunities, and the absence of role models to provide support and inspiration. There is also a tendency for females to put family obligations such as childcare ahead of their career aspirations.
Organisations can have the best intentions to improve their gender diversity practices but putting intentions into practice can be a challenge. When recruiting teams select talent, the process matters. Unconscious biases, for instance, can affect how recruitment and promotions are made. Most recruiting processes, whether they involve hiring externally or promoting internally, favour “traditional applicants”, with an inclination to rule out candidates who don't fit the conventional profile. When interviewers don’t know the decision criteria for selection or what questions to ask to assess those criteria, human nature dictates they will most likely default to their comfort zone. This means they tend to select individuals who remind them of themselves or the management team, which can result in a lack of diversity. Furthermore, if employers choose the wrong talent for their development programmes, it could undermine their effectiveness as well.
At the most senior level, when female executives have already attained a notable level of success, the question often becomes what will keep them enthusiastic? What will give them the confidence and belief that further success at the highest level is within their grasp? What does it take to motivate them to take the step to the next level or persuade them not to opt out because they feel they have reached the limit of their achievements? This is where the HR function can step in by paying close attention to building the talent pipeline.
Using data as a starting point the HR function can take a solemn look at how well women are represented in the succession plan and consider taking action to rectify the situation if they aren’t. Data is needed to understand the skills required for different C-suite roles, what competencies candidates are developing, and where gaps exist. For instance, are women being given equal access to leadership training? Are female employees ruling themselves out from applying for roles because they can’t meet all of the criteria? Research has shown that if women can’t meet even one job spec requirement they are unlikely to apply for the role, whereas men will apply if they meet only a few of the criteria. Could mentoring or sponsorship be used to amass confidence and help female leaders overcome the “imposter syndrome” that they are sometimes afflicted with?
Choosing the right strategies
The common theme in all strategies that support gender diversity is credibility is imperative. The majority of gender diversity strategies focus on proliferating the makeup of the talent pool. While this approach is valuable, on its own it isn’t enough. Numerous well-intended diversity efforts come up short because they only touch upon a superficial layer within the organisation – the effort is not integrated into the company’s daily operations. A critical piece for creating and nurturing a gender-diverse workforce depends on the level of commitment from leaders. It should be noted that even the best-intentioned gender-diversity programmes can easily be undone by mediocre leadership — or even a lack of positive leadership. Importantly, if the HR function makes promises that leaders don’t deliver on, the result could negatively impact objectives to elevate diversity strategies.
Leaders are the people who create the standards and norms within their organisations. Leadership — with the HR function helping communicate the objectives and messages — are at the forefront of driving gender-diverse meritocratic access to opportunities. Thus, it is imperative for companies to focus on developing their leaders' diversity knowledge; bias training and equipping them with the skills needed to implement diversity initiatives.
Leaders and managers have an unmatched opportunity to enhance — or hinder — a culture of belonging and relationship building with their teams. This requires managers to engineer a deep understanding and trust with different types of people, even if they don’t have a lot in common. Employers need to coach managers on the behaviours that breed safety and fairness, encourage diverse perspectives, challenge assumptions, and support constant learning and growth. Doing so can help foster an environment where all talent can thrive in a culture of encouragement and inclusion. In such an environment, people share a collective purpose, enjoy connectivity and collaboration, and experience a strong sense of belonging, which can give rise to an organisational culture that attracts employees with versatile skills, increases their retention, and ultimately boosts business results.
Sponsorship or mentorship, knowing the difference
Many employers blur the lines between specific sponsorship programmes and programmes that are really about mentorship. Mentorship programmes are a source of guidance providing career advice for those who may lack extended networks; sponsorship, on the other hand, requires advocacy for a person that reaps opportunities. Mentoring relationships can be helpful, but it is sponsorship that can really energise individuals with C-suite potential. Placing high-potential female management candidates in stretch assignments and roles that attract visibility provides them with valuable experience. Significantly, it cascades the message that senior leadership are endorsing their talent. Implicit acknowledgment from a senior leader does as much as — if not more than – what bias training or awareness groups can achieve to indicate an organisation is serious about its gender diversity objectives. Today’s talent market has certainly shifted. Having a clearly defined gender diversity policy is critical at a time when planning ahead will help organisations develop strong leaders, who are ripe for the future of work.