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Diversity in the workplace must go all the way to the top

20 Jul 2021

West Monroe’s Matt Sondag discusses the role leaders must play in making the C-suite more inclusive and why the pandemic has created more barriers for women.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, practices and initiatives need to start from the top. But it is often the top that has the biggest issues.

One global study from November last year suggested that women account for just 19pc of leadership teams on average.

In Ireland, a report from Balance for Better Business published in December claimed that a “serious gender imbalance” persists among senior leadership teams in Ireland, adding that many Irish companies are likely to miss their 2023 targets for boosting the number of women in leadership roles and on boards.

But it has been well-documented that more diverse teams lead to better outcomes in business. Matt Sondag, an M&A practice lead at US-based consultancy firm West Monroe, said he has seen this in action.

“We work with 40pc of the top 100 private equity firms, which means we see a lot of companies under the portfolio management of private equity and we see a lot of management teams. I can confirm, personally, that we see this play out in in real life,” he said.

“Women typically have very high EQs and strong empathy skills – both critical leadership traits. That combination leads to better questions, better collaboration and better business outcomes whey they are in a company leadership position.”

He said one of the biggest barriers to better gender diversity at the moment is the pandemic, a belief that has been backed up by a number of surveys and reports over the past year.

In a Glassdoor survey of 1,000 UK workers last summer, women reported greater stress levels at work as a result of Covid-19, lower levels of motivation and greater amounts of sleeplessness compared to men.

In a survey from early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator 500 Startups in May 2020, female founders were already expressing concerns around how the Covid-19 crisis would disproportionately affect them.

And earlier this year, PwC’s annual Women in Work Index said that progress for women in work could be back to 2017 levels by the end of this year due to the pandemic. “In order to undo the damage caused by Covid-19 to women in work, even by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate,” PwC said in its report.

Sondag said the impact of Covid-19 on women has forced many to pivot in order to balance personal obligations and there is a concern about the long-term consequences of this.

“Our latest poll that surveys 150 C-suite executives every quarter shows that the majority of executives are aware of this trend and are doing something about it, but 23pc are not. The most common action they’re taking to address the issue is providing more flexible work arrangements (64pc). Fewer are adjusting their hiring strategy (25pc) and offering increased childcare benefits (17pc),” he said.

“Another barrier facing women not just right now, but for a long time, is that they don’t see other women in the C-suite or feel significantly outnumbered in leadership ranks. This can really affect their confidence and end up underestimating their ability to one day be sitting in the C-suite themselves.”

What can leaders do?

Sondag said that while he is seeing a lot of commitment to and interest in overcoming the diversity gap, the biggest challenge for leaders is often knowing where to start and how to make it measurable.

It’s a good idea to have a strong mentorship programme in place for women – and one that includes men as mentors. If you aren’t including men as mentors in these programmes, you are missing the mark, because they are a critical component to getting more women in the C-suite,” he said.

“Model the right behaviours by being vulnerable. We need to tell these stories of professional or personal adversity in front of our teams. This shows heart and authenticity and that it takes more than a tough person to succeed in our business.”

‘Without inclusion, diversity doesn’t matter’

He also said it’s vital that workplaces adapt to the flexibility needs for employees, particularly those who are parents. Research from Qualtrics and Accel Partners in 2017 found that 76pc of millennials said they would be willing to take a pay cut of at least 3pc in order to work for a company that offers flexible hours.

The result of the pandemic means that flexible and remote working has become possible for many knowledge workers and recent research from Microsoft suggests that more than 40pc of the workforce would consider leaving their current employer if these options were not provided.

Sondag said the hybrid models driven by the pandemic are a good thing because they will give employees more flexibility.

“Companies also need to be developing, upskilling and preparing employees at all levels to reach C-suite status one day. It’s not enough to do this for a handful of people who are ‘almost there’. The organisation needs to do it at all levels to create viable C-suite candidates through training, opportunities and more,” he said.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that diversity is not just limited to race and gender. Inclusion and diversity is also about building a workplace with the best representation of ideas and experiences. And placing a strong emphasis on inclusion is critical because without inclusion, diversity doesn’t matter.”

He also said a mistake he often sees is only elevating women by asking them to speak about women’s issues as opposed to their area of expertise.

“While we all want to advance discussions about women issues, that shouldn’t be the only time women are elevated or invited to join the conversation.”

With additional reporting by Lisa Ardill

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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