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Gender blender

It is high time the traditional approach to diversity and gender equality in the workplace was turned on its head. For a modern organisation to truly succeed, it needs to embed equality as an outward facing value which affects everything the business does. Article by Angela Williams, HR Director at Sodexo (UK and Ireland).

It is no longer enough to just focus on promoting equality through structural reforms and targets, although this will always have an important role but as a means as opposed to an end in itself, rather equality must be a cultural philosophy which can drive fundamental business outcomes. Once equality is embedded at the heart of a business’s strategy, then the business benefits will really start to flow.

Last December, we saw some of its most senior leaders from around the world gather in London for a gender diversity panel debate. Influential figures from UK media, politics and business, including Hazel Blears MP and Simon Fanshawe OBE, made up a panel to discuss ‘the respective roles of business, society and Government in promoting gender equality’. More than 60 senior representatives from amongst our clients were part of the 100-strong audience invited to take part in the discussion. The debate highlighted the challenges and successes of gender equality in the workplace, and moreover was an excellent example of our organisation's commitment in this area, both in terms of our own workforce and sharing our best practice with clients. Underpinning much of what was discussed at the event were three key reasons why gender equality should be linked to business outcomes.

Firstly, with modern social trends, companies are increasingly close to their customers and it is a competitive disadvantage for an organisation not to represent its client base. Secondly, the business world is competitive in a way never seen before and the best way of staying ahead of the game is through a continual cycle of innovation. Inclusivity and diversity in the workforce, regardless of gender, race, age, disability or sexual orientation, act as a motor of continual innovation and challenge to conventional ways of doing things. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the businesses which are going to really succeed in the twenty-first century are those who take their workforces with them and embed their people in the heart of their business model. To create lasting value, organisations and society must place people at the centre of their thinking.

It is for these three core reasons that we are proud to have taken the lead on gender equality. We have set a global objective for 2015 that women will represent 25 percent of our top 300 managers and we are well on the way to achieving this: 23 percent of our top managers are women. In the UK and Ireland, this figure is 32 percent, with women representing 38 percent of our board. In Europe, 11 of our country leaders are female. But more fundamentally than focusing on numbers, we have undertaken to ensure that gender equality becomes embedded in the very culture and ethos of the company. It is not just about quick fixes as we have to ensure that this trend stays in place for generations to come. This is why globally we have set up the Sodexo Women’s International Forum for Talent (Swift), the cornerstone of our gender diversity strategy. Co-chaired by Sophie Bellon, who is due to succeed her father and founder Pierre Bellon as Group Chair in 2016, Swift is made up of 34 top female and, just as importantly, male executives from around the world. Also among the membership are the UK and Ireland chief executive Debbie White, another of the panel in December’s gender diversity event, and Sodexo Education managing director Jane Bristow, who is a Swift steering committee member.

The group partners up with our dedicated HR teams to increase the percentage of women right through the structure of the business. Their focus is in engaging the organisation, developing the leadership pipeline and fostering the culture of inclusion to deliver tangible business outcomes. What Swift enables is a wholescale approach to gender equality across the organization, and how it can change business outcomes. Across fifteen nationalities and four continents, the team comes together to improve the advancement of women in our company, make the culture more inclusive so women can reach their potential and provide strategic input and recommendations to the group executive committee, sharing global best practice and serving as role models to men and women in our business.

In the UK we have set up Women Work, under our Diversity and Inclusion Council, an employee network group designed to foster an inclusive culture and mentoring structure for our top female employees. Women Work was initially driven by the previous UK and Ireland HR director, now European HR director, Natalie Bickford, and its introduction was part of the reason she collected a Working Mums Champion Award in 2012.  We believe such initiatives can be positive agents for change that can affect the way the business operates. Such a programme is driving change that is having real business outcomes, from the top of our organisation right through to our daily frontline contact with customers. For example, over half of our customer-base of 75 million are women, so it is imperative that our workforce is cognisant, and as far as possible, reflects this reality. In an era in which the range of users of services is ever-growing, it is imperative that their partners reflect their experiences and realities. People will vote with their feet if they feel a company is not something with which they can identify, and on which they can advocate on your behalf. Put simply, companies with positive brands around diversity and inclusivity are less likely to encounter small or large scale consumer boycotts. An ageing population which is increasingly ethnically diverse brings with it a whole new set of challenges, but the principles of openness and engagement remain the same.

The evidence base is there. Companies with increased gender diversity consistently outperform their counterparts on measures including; sales, revenue, customer numbers and market share. As a snapshot, research highlighted in our October 2012 report ‘How Britain works: key trends in a workplace environment’ showed companies with women making up at least a third of the board outperformed others, with the least by 53 percent return on equity, 42 percent return on sales and 66 percent return on invested capital. Indeed, a diverse workforce can become the base for changing behaviors of suppliers, customers and partners to ensure a sustainable business model which keeps you close to your clients’ needs. Consumer purchasing decisions involve women 80 percent of the time. It is for this reason that our Women Work network focuses on finding opportunities to engage clients and suppliers in positive discussions in this field. Trends indicate that a relentless focus on diversity drives new insights into diverse customers, realising competitive advantage in the process.

Competitive advantage is also driven by innovation, the second theme of the business case for gender diversity. With changes in technology and in expectations of the services used, customers and employees rightly expect increased quality of services and new innovations. In our experience, innovation can only be borne out of an organisation’s greatest asset: its people. And how can we expect great innovation from a non-diverse workforce with similar backgrounds and experiences? Again the evidence bears this out. Repeated studies demonstrate that organisations with significant numbers of women in their senior teams do better on performance measures such as innovation, good governance and financial results, relative to their sector. As large companies such as ourselves, where we employ 428,000 people as the 18th biggest employer in the world, we also have the opportunity to drive innovation in our supply chains. I believe large businesses act as ecosystems in the environments in which they operate and can continually call on their suppliers and partners to develop innovative products and ways of working. Swift co-chair Sophie Bellon is the substantive Sodexo group special advisor for research development innovation, which essentially brings the spirit of innovation and gender diversity into one role at the highest level of the organisation.

Thirdly, I mentioned that we must take people with us on every stage of a company’s journey. We are convinced that the men and women in a company must be the real beneficiaries of its success, and we believe that by creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, we lay the foundations for people to be attracted to working with us. We have evidence from our organisation that an inclusive environment increases productivity, and employee engagement is directly linked to lower employee turnover and higher customer advocacy. Through Swift we identified a lack of women in operational roles and senior management positions, so we’re working hard on both fronts to improve the gender balance right through the organisation. Some of the wider figures are staggering. For example, research from Hay indicates that companies with the highest levels of engagement and openness have 40 percent lower employee turnover rates. In an age of increased competiveness, this has to be a no-brainer.

At a recruitment level, the top people are becoming more diverse and choosier about where they work. With 70 percent of global graduates expected to be female by 2020, the race is on to develop workplaces which are diverse, inclusive and affect the realities of future employees in order to attract and retain the world’s best talent. It is important that a focus on gender diversity and inclusion is fundamentally about shifting an organisation’s culture and business outlook, and this is what Swift has been all about. It enables cultural change. Targets should be used as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is only in this way that the three core benefits of gender equality; customer insights, innovation and employee engagement can be best realised in the long-term and to the benefits of a company’s bottom line. I have talked here about female initiatives (and there are many more) but it is important that men are part of an organisation’s diversity and inclusivity approach in order to ensure all perspectives are garnered and there is maximum internal buy in. We are all in it together.

I fear that the global downturn has forced some organisations to lose focus on the importance of gender diversity and inclusion. But I would argue now is exactly the time to energise your organisation to create a long-term, sustainable business model with a range of people at its heart. Through Swift we have implemented gender networks in more than 13 countries, involved over 660 women in mentoring programmes and developed nine toolkits to address specific operational needs. It is time to turn what we expect from inclusivity and diversity on its head to relentlessly focus on our users as well as our employees. Good corporate citizenship isn’t just about a company but also about the people whose lives it touches every day. Now is the time to act.

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