Gender equity in organisations is a cultural change issue

Gender equity in organisations is a cultural change issue, not an HR issue.

For too long recruitment/promotion policies have been the domain of the Human Resources department. For all the good work they do, these areas can be under-resourced and usually do not have the skilled staff (nor budget) to conduct organisational cultural change initiatives. However, that is exactly what is needed to (finally) bring gender pay and responsibility equity to the corporate world.

Gender pay equity (Australian link) is not improving. Facts and figures abound, and I’m assuming everyone is aware of the pay inequity, so I will discuss it only briefly here. In 1979, the gender pay gap was reflected as women earning 80.6 cents for every dollar a man earns (from OECD). In 2013 (that’s an astonishing thirty-four years later) the gender pay gap has barely improved, to 82.5 cents (EOWA, Gender Pay Statistics). Why is this so? Equal pay legislation was introduced in 1969 (as equal pay for work of equal value), and the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1984. But you wouldn’t know that, looking at the results decades later. Women have been educated at roughly equal numbers over the last couple of decades, which is time enough to see equality reflected in the levels of organisational hierarchy. Yet we haven’t seen this occur. At this rate, we are incredibly still many decades away from achieving equal pay. (Update 19 June: Excellent ABC article/ graphs by Greg Jericho in “Gender Politics is a Reflection of Reality.”)

In late 2012, the National Australia Bank released the results of their gender pay equity audit, covering 10% of their workforce. Assessing the differences in pay for men and women in the same jobs, they found a 29% difference – to the advantage of men. (I would love to know how they are addressing that within the company.) I congratulate NAB for conducting the survey and releasing these figures: few organisations have done so. There is no reason to suggest this pay gap is anything but the norm across most organisations.

Clearly, something is fundamentally entrenched in our society that needs to change. Managers don’t recruit in a vacuum. We all bring our socialised selves/ cultural baggage to each interview. Women are not yet equal in society, in a myriad of ways, and therefore a female job applicant starts from behind to begin with. Also, it is a natural tendency to hire someone like ourselves, and for hiring managers to choose someone quite unlike themselves (and those they know) a deliberate, conscious process is often required. Organisations may have networks that make it easier for men to be promoted over women. When women value themselves lower than men during payment negotiations, often incorrectly assuming the first offer is automatically a fair one, managers don’t encourage them to ask for more (perhaps thinking: ‘If she is happy with that, great, I’ll save the organisation some money’). We have also seen that some women find it difficult to promote other women: these cultural norms affect us all.

Most of this behaviour is likely to be unconscious. Very few people would agree that they deliberately discriminate against women (active misogynists are still around but are being weeded out). People don’t take the time to work through their own gender equity issues unless they are highly motivated to do so. There are many conflicting demands on our time and if we are unaware of our unconscious bias — which is fair enough, being unconscious and all — it is understandable that many of us don’t make the time to educate ourselves. Teaching managers how to make equality-minded recruitment decisions is difficult precisely because it is so much harder to deal with our unconscious bias.

Making those unconscious thoughts conscious would be the purpose of a culture change program, with the aim of achieving solid equity targets. It is time to move away from what can be interpreted as benign neglect. Organisations need to run a cultural change program with the following components:

  1. CEO and senior executives commit to achieving gender pay equity, recognising the links between salary and level of responsibility in the organisation
  2. Run a gender pay equity audit (or do this first, if unsure there is a problem)
  3. Executives develop targets, with consequences if targets are not met
  4. Develop a cultural change and communication campaign, reporting to the most senior executive possible to show commitment, and to provide visible support
  5. Be clear about level of transparency and vocal about the change program’s goals
  6. Research/survey issues affecting gender equity in the organisation, whether they be societal, organisational or personal
  7. Put programs in place to address identified problem areas; e.g. train staff about unconscious bias and anti-discrimination practices
  8. Report progress regularly
  9. Celebrate milestones achieved.

This program should be run by an organisational culture change expert. The team would include communication specialists, HR expertise, and coaches/ counsellors (for special cases) trained in gender equity issues.

[15/7/13 addition] Some people may find this gender target setting toolkit useful, recently launched by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

The good news is that change is inevitable. Organisations employing over 100 people now need to report on employee pay by gender under the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. The Gillard government recognised it was time for organisations to take equal pay seriously, that previous initiatives have not worked.

Why do we even care? (Beyond ensuring equal rights of course.) Well, organisations are finding that nowadays they need to do more with less, faster. The best possible talent is required, and organisations that are known to treat women well will attract good female candidates. Plus, Goldman Sach’s chief economist estimated that if women’s workforce participation were lifted to equal men’s there would be a boost to national GDP of at least 13%.

And I have yet to mention how important gender equity is for organisational boards! The statistics on the benefits of having gender equity on a board should convert anyone in doubt. One example: McKinsey recently analyzed financial performance of 362 major companies from European and BRIC countries with two or more women in the corporate board. As a result they found out that on the whole such companies are 41% ahead of the sector’s average in terms of return on equity and 56% ahead in terms of EBIT. Gender balance in top positions contributes to better business performance, the report by McKinsey continues. They state gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies.

OK everyone, get on it! We’ve got work to do!

(My thanks to Anne Summers and her book The Misogyny Factor (2013) for documenting relevant facts and figures above. The book is a powerful and sobering read.)


On 13 June 2013 we saw an incredibly powerful example of how to change an organisational culture to promote gender equity. Australia’s Chief of Army, David Morrison, will simply not tolerate people who disrespect women in the force: his direct message is “Get Out.”

His leadership is commendable and provides important pointers for an cultural change program. He has:

  • stated clearly that Army culture is changing
  • unequivocally supported the vital contributions of women across the Army
  • stated that recent actions have significantly undermined the reputation of the Army and each and every soldier
  • called attention to the Army’s values and said people who do not support those values are not welcome
  • said he will be ruthless in weeding out people who do not support the Army’s values
  • clearly stated his expectations are for everyone to show moral courage. “The standards you walk past are the standards you accept.”

Additionally, and critically, his message was unequivocal. No-one watching this video will think this is a token effort. Culture change is coming to the Army.


One thought on “Gender equity in organisations is a cultural change issue

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. Gender inequality has existed in many countries, where women have been under valued on what they do. Thanks to the new constitution for example in Kenya Article 27 of Kenyan 2010 talks of equality to all. It is expected that most of the countries will soon end this kind of discrimination

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