Time’s Up: Dismantling Barriers to Gender Parity in the C-Suite

Turning Moments into Movements

After decades of effort and irrefutable evidence of the advantages of gender diversity in corporate management, women are still under-represented in leadership positions globally. Why? Will heightened global awareness and a wave of accountability for violence and discrimination against women in the workplace finally lead to real change?

AESC investigates whether many longstanding efforts to improve the gender balance in organizational leadership are workarounds that leave barriers standing, and explores how identifying and removing the barriers to parity might be achieved. We ask what business leaders can do to make sure the opportunity presented by #MeToo and similar events worldwide become movements for true parity, and not just moments.

Climate Change

“One thing is for certain: The #MeToo movement has exposed an epidemic of sexual assault and harassment across every corner of the world and unbottled a collective fury which can no longer be contained. Any notion that it is a short-lived Western fad can safely be dismissed.” —from “The #MeToo shockwave: how the movement has reverberated around the world.”

- The Telegraph, March, 2018

While the majority of media attention has been focused on Hollywood and the West, in South Korea a politician resigned after his secretary, inspired to come forward by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, publicly accused him of rape. In China, the movement known as #Woyeshi is helping women speak out against sexual and domestic violence and workplace discrimination. Protesters marched in Nairobi, and opinion leaders are speaking out in Pakistan. In India, women have been driving a series of feminist campaigns since 2003.

By some reports, millions of women around the world are speaking up about assault and violence in the workplace. High profile allegations, firings and resignations, policy discussions at the highest levels and an unwavering chorus of both women and men speaking out have changed power dynamics in the workplace, worldwide.

Will this extraordinary time be a catalyst for meaningful change beyond harassment?

“Absolutely, because there’s awareness and it’s pointing out unacceptable behavior whether it’s sexual harassment, pay disparity, poor promotion rates, or the absence of women in the workforce,” says Kathryn Ullrich, a partner at Ogders Berndtson who specializes in working with clients on increasing diversity in technology.

“I don’t know if it’s an old adage, but when it comes to behavioral change, there are four stages: first is you’re unconsciously unaware that you’re even doing it, next you become consciously aware that you’re doing something that’s bad. Once you become conscious that it’s not good behavior, you actually subtly start changing and you move to consciously doing the right thing.” The goal, Ullrich says, “is to get to nirvana, which is unconsciously doing the right thing: a new behavior.”

Cathy Logue, Managing Director of Stanton Chase in Toronto, Canada, agrees. “You can’t change what you can’t see.” For Logue, raising awareness has empowered people, but she is also wary of an overcorrection. “I have talked to male colleagues, and they are a lot more aware of what they do, and that’s a good thing,” she says. In the business world, a lot of decisions and business relationships take shape over dinner and drinks, and those should be professional occasions. “There has to be a respect of the line between what is appropriate in those situations,” Logue says. “I hope it doesn’t tip it to where women are ignored in the workplace and excluded.”

This problem is pronounced in Latin America, according to Cristina Bomchil, Executive Director of Valuar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Latin America is a very ‘machista’ culture, where women still are considered the weak gender,” she says. “When women are harassed it is unlikely that the offender will get punished. Although it is currently changing, men have the most powerful positions, and they can take advantage of it and abuse their authority.”

According to Bomchil, women with the courage to speak up have recently had an impact in Argentina. “Several famous and until now prestigious television directors were accused by females of sexual harassment and fired from their jobs or publicly denigrated,” she says. “The US movement definitely encouraged these women to stand forward and report what had happened to them.” And what happens next? “Business leaders must embrace this movement and help women develop and grow in their organizations, giving them chances, trusting and listening to their opinions, encouraging them to take increasing responsibilities, showing respect and recognizing their achievements,” Bomchil says.

For Logue, “We have to make sure we are translating the outrage into action. There’s been a groundswell. We just have to make sure it’s harnessed properly. The pendulum could go the other way and be counter-productive.”

Brushing up on the business case

“The house burned in front of them but they wanted the data to prove it. That is the audacity and ridiculousness of making the business case: convincing one of the obvious. If the smoke doesn’t alarm you, the fire certainly should.”

Bernard Coleman III, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Uber, Forbes Community Voice, January 2018

So much of the business case for a diverse workplace is old news, but it bears repeating. Diversity drives improvement in financial performance, recruitment and retention, innovation and leadership effectiveness. As we explore the business case for women in the workforce and in leadership positions, we reaffirm our conviction that diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, background and broader diversity of thought are vital elements of a vibrant and powerful organization.

For workplaces and leadership teams worldwide, there are several measures of the positive impact of women.


Africa Zanella is the CEO of the Centre for Sustainability and Gender Economics and a senior consultant to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. She says, “If women worked full-time in Australia the annual GDP would increase by $180 Billion, representing a 13% growth rate.” And as reported in the Straits Times, if women’s participation in the workplace matched that of men, “ASEAN countries could add US $1.2 trillion of GDP to their economies, 30 percent more than would be the case without action on gender inequality.”

By other estimates, by advancing women’s equality in the workplace, Canada could add an incremental $150 Billion to the GDP by 2026.

These are impressive figures. What would workplace equality mean globally? According to the research report “The power of parity” by McKinsey & Company “in a scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.”


National and global economic growth is a powerful motivator, but business leaders are immediately responsible for their company’s performance. There are numbers for that metric, too.

In the report “The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance And Gender Diversity” from Catalyst, “companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation. This finding holds for both financial measures analyzed: Return on Equity, which is 35 percent higher, and Total Return to Shareholders, which is 34 percent higher.”

Credit Suisse Research Institute reported that companies with at least one woman on their board outperformed the peer group by 26% over the preceding six years. And for investors focusing on those companies where gender diversity is a factor, “the report also finds that the market is willing to pay a 19 percent premium price-to-book multiple for the top 50 percent of companies with female CEOs. These companies show returns on equity that are 19 percent higher on average and provide a nine percent higher dividend payout.”

Looking at the numbers, Victoria Reese, Managing Partner of diversity and inclusion at Heidrick & Struggles, says “Here are companies that changed their policies, here are companies that added diversity to the top, and this is how it moves their bottom line. We really need to understand how best to communicate these facts, motivate people toward this common goal.”

Jane Stevenson leads Korn Ferry’s Global CEO Succession practice. She believes, “We’re at a unique moment in time right now, where there is clear recognition that it is in the best interest of all to utilize a full complement of talent.” She adds, “I’m not sure if we’ve ever been in a moment in history like this before.”

“The result of all these changes is what social scientists call a norms cascade: a series of long-term trends that produce a sudden shift in social mores. There’s no going back. The work environment now is much different from what it was a year ago. To put things plainly, if you sexually harass or assault a colleague, employee, boss, or business contact today, your job will be at risk.”

- From HBR: “Now What?” January 2018


Recognizing both the performance advantage of diverse leadership and the desire to invest in companies that reflect investor values, another advantage in gender-diverse leadership is garnering the support of diversity-focused investors.

According to investment company State Street Global’s March 7, 2018 press release, in the first year since the placement of the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street and their gender-focused outreach, “152 companies added a female board member, and another 34 companies committed to adding at least one woman to their board in the near term.” In addition, the company “voted against more than 500 companies for failing to demonstrate progress on board diversity.” The firm also announced it would be expanding its board guidance to companies in Japan, Canada and Europe.

There are significant implications for companies that resist investor priorities. BlackRock Inc. is the world’s largest asset manager, whose global head of stewardship Michelle Edkins told the Wall Street Journal, “If we see a company with a board structure or level of disclosure…we think is not aligned with our expectations, we will engage, state our views and will listen to what the company tells us. Based on that conversation, we will reset our expectations; if we still think there needs to be something different, ultimately we may vote against management.”

Zanella explains how the EU is pressing the cause of gender diversity, for example the world’s largest multilateral financier, the European Investment Bank, is committed to promoting gender equality in all of its activities. “If you want any money from the EU you are going to have a gender plan. Everybody has to comply,” she says.


Gender diversity has a measurable impact on innovation, according to the 2017 “The Mix That Matters” report on research conducted by the Technical University of Munich and the Boston Consulting Group. The study found that “companies with the greatest gender diversity (8 out of every 20 managers were female) generated about 34% of their revenues from innovative products and services in the most recent three-year period.” The evidence also suggests that having a high percentage of female managers “is positively correlated with disruptive innovation, in which a new product, service, or business model fully replaces the version that existed before.”

According to the research, however, having a token female at the table is insufficient. “Only when women occupy a significant share of management positions does the innovation premium become evident: innovation revenues start to kick in when more than 20% of managers at a company are female, our survey shows.”


Any company leaving a significant percentage of its resources untapped is, by definition, underperforming. Stevenson sees women as “a value base that’s been very undercapitalized.” She says, “That’s how I think boards have an opportunity and an obligation to think about women. What asset in our organization that represented 50% of our potential would we not care about?”

The need for talent presents opportunities for organizations and for women. Stevenson says, “There are mutual needs that have to be met, and we are seeing women as an underutilized area of talent that can fill many, many of these needs, and not to the exclusion of men, I might add.” Stevenson is emphatic: “I reject the zero sum game conversation. It’s really about and, not or.”

Part of managing human resources may be a form of loss prevention. Zanella says, “JB Weir did a study which showed if you put in place certain programs for women to come back to work after they’ve left the workplace to care for their children, there is a huge benefit for the organization.”


In global research from The Conference Board, executives worldwide name attracting and retaining top talent among their chief priorities. Zanella observes “time and time again they say ‘we can’t find suitable women,’ but that’s not true,” she says. “More women are being educated than men, more women are seeking leadership roles and achieving more at younger ages, and more women are returning to work.” Yet globally, women are not promoted at the same rate as men.

What is the potential price for not promoting women? According to Deloitte’s “The gender dividend: Making the business case for investing in women,” organizations, even countries cannot assume women will stay where they are not promoted. “More educated women than men move from their country of origin in search of greater opportunities. This has produced a female brain drain of global proportions.” And it gets worse. “Countries and companies that lose educated women suffer a double loss—they lose a worker and a potential mentor.”

The price of failing to retain women is more than the opportunity cost, Zanella says. “A company that has invested in a young female employee for years, doesn’t want to lose that investment when she chooses to become a mother.”

Stevenson agrees. “We have to do a few things differently, we’re going to have to think about our comfort zones differently, we have to think about how we retain that population, so we’re not losing 90% of them between the middle management and the top of the house. That wouldn’t be an acceptable outcome in any other measure.”

Recruiting is as much a challenge as retention, as desirable candidates explore their options in a more transparent world. Looking to that new generation of talent, Reese says, “Corporations need to be prepared for young people entering the workforce who already understand that it’s their right to question, it’s their right to demand a safe and supportive working environment.”


How can companies and teams get the message? Reese explains, “This is not a new issue, and this is not one that’s going to be solved overnight. People need to make sure that they’re not just talking to each other in an echo chamber, but really understanding how to educate their fellow colleagues.”

Stevenson speaks for many when she says, “There is not a long stretch of logic between diverse leadership and financial outcomes. So connecting the dots, this is important from a financial returns perspective, from a representation of economics perspective, from a ‘what are we going to do with our children, so many of whom will be women,’ perspective.

For Reese, there is no question that diversity equates to success. “There’s a lot out there,” she says. “Bloomberg started a women’s index showing whether companies have pay equity and women in their leadership suites.” She adds, “We’ve seen it from many different sources and that’s important, because that data is going to speak to certain constituencies that may say ‘oh, yeah, it’s nice to have but not imperative.’ To have the data that it backs up the business case is critical.”

What’s in the Way

“When it comes to how women and men see the state of women and gender diversity efforts, there are striking differences. Men are more likely to think the workplace is equitable; women see a workplace that is less fair and offers less support. Men think their companies are doing a pretty good job supporting diversity; women see more room for improvement. Given the persistent lag in women’s advancement, women have the more accurate view.”

—from “Women in the Workplace 2017,” Lean In and McKinsey Global Initiative.

What stands between well-intentioned organizations and their gender diversity goals? AESC member consultants who work in the area of gender diversity have identified some of the barriers that stand in the way of institutions and individuals achieving gender diversity and inclusion.


Malini Vaidya leads Spencer Stuart’s Asia Pacific business, with a focus on board and CEO succession. “One of the most commonly cited barriers to women on boards is that the number of qualified women in corporate life is not enough,” she says. “I don’t subscribe to that.” Vaidya explains, “In most countries now, in the more mature economies and even in emerging economies, the number of women in leadership positions has almost doubled, so that barrier in my opinion is something that is made up in people’s minds.”

If there are enough women with the education and experience to advance, then what is happening?


Vaidya insists there are well-qualified women to take on leadership roles. However, she says, “I would submit that there is a greater anxiousness to call on a younger woman to step up. That’s where we have the whole ‘she’s not ready yet,’ problem.” She says boards “think they would have to make concessions, and I genuinely don’t believe that’s a good enough excuse.” For example, she says, “Almost every single Board we work with wants someone in the digital area, and by nature those people can’t be more than 45 years old! We decide that they are too young to know anything so we end up never hiring anyone – it’s really a cultural barrier.”

Ullrich is concerned that unconscious bias can have a foothold among professionals at the heart of the selection process. The bias isn’t always spoken, but it may be there, she says. “Even if they don’t say it, these biases have an impact.” Biases such as, “She’s not going to want to travel, she’s not strategic enough, she should be home with her family, she doesn’t have the right network. All of these are unconscious biases that could affect anyone in the process.”

Jane Griffith is a partner and national diversity leader in Ogders Berndtson’s Toronto, Canada office. Based on 15 years' experience as an executive recruiter, she sees a lot of examples of bias in the workplace including how hardworking women are often perceived as difficult to work with whereas hardworking men are regaled and held up. Or that when men have children, they are viewed as being more responsible; when women have children they are seen as a flight risk and less committed to work. These are systemic issues, and this is just about gender! This isn’t even about race, so imagine then coupling gender and race together, or race and sexual orientation together. These are hugely systemic issues that we have in our society.”

The insidious part of bias is that most people aren’t aware that they have it. Ullrich says, “If we get a voice in the room that is pointing these things out, we can break through those barriers to say ‘are we evaluating our candidates fairly? Is this a competency we’re looking for, is this just how the woman presented herself? Is this an unconscious bias?’ Then we can focus on the critical skill.”


Gender roles in families and communities have a profound impact on whether women have opportunities to work and advance. Particularly in emerging economies, women’s perceived roles as caregivers conflict with paid employment.

Gallup and the International Labour Organization worked together on a survey to capture the attitudes of men and women about women and work. “Early marriage and pregnancy, mostly in developing countries, and unpaid care responsibilities globally are persistent barriers to women’s education and their entry into the labour force.”

“In Latin America, wives are expected to do all domestic functions and take care of family issues, like childcare and looking after aging parents,” Bomchil says.

The Gallup/ILO research suggests cultural pressures are keeping women from work, especially in Northern Africa. While more than a third of women in the region want paid jobs, “just 24 percent of men would prefer that women in their families only have paid jobs and 51 percent—the highest percentage worldwide—would like to see them stay at home.”


Men and women often present themselves quite differently, so that two individuals with comparable qualifications may be received unequally. “This became glaring to me when I became the CHRO of the firm at the start of 2015 and I had my first couple of negotiations with men and women.” Rick Greene is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Heidrick & Struggles. He describes the typical experience in how men and women negotiate with him. “The men would walk in, they would lean across my desk and basically say in a nice but quasi-threatening way, ‘this is what I expect and need the firm to do.’ The women would come in, women who were equally deserving and may even have been asking for less than the men were, and they were apologizing. ‘I’m sorry to take your time for this, I sort of feel like I’ve been underpaid.’”

Greene adds, “I had one case where a woman came by and said ‘I was promoted with a group years ago, and my base salary was lower then, and no one’s ever made it up.’ He says, “She was apologetic, and that’s what has to change. I really believe it’s starting to turn in the US, the UK and some of the other markets in Europe, but boy, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Griffith references a recent study that tried to “qualify through hard data the differences between female and male promotion.” In this study, “a series of executives in the company wore sensors and they measured the time that they spent working and the time they spent interacting, what level of the company they interacted with. They found no difference. Women are doing the same things that men are doing, it’s how women’s actions are perceived.” Griffith draws attention to this “inherent piece of our culture, about what we expect from males versus females, and what we tolerate.”

For Griffith, “We have normalized that men succeed, and there are a whole lot of systemic issues behind that, from unconscious bias to the likability gap. Look at venture capital funding and what female leaders get versus what males get, there’s an inherent bias in all of this.” Griffith adds, “If we don’t smash it in some way, we’re never really going to make progress.”


Worldwide, women lag behind men in their access to mobile phones and the Internet. Based on 2016 research by Gallup, “nearly nine in ten men have mobile phones for their personal needs, compared with nearly eight in ten women. Some of the largest gaps in technology access are in regions where women are also struggling the most to participate in the workforce and to find quality jobs: Northern and sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia, and the Arab States.”


Vaidya says, “A real barrier is around the fact that boards are slow in changing. It is a groupthink, maybe a club mentality, and not feeling the need for independence, which is usually the reason that you renew the board.”

Vaidya is careful not to attach motives to the lack of women on boards. “I don’t think it is because of prejudice or any kind of bad intent, it’s just tradition.”

From Ullrich’s perspective, “Boards hire people based on who they know, and if ‘no one knows her,’ the outcome is likely to be ‘oh, we don’t know if she’ll work out.’ You can present a slate, and the board will come back to who knows those people. A woman is not going to have the same network as a man, so if that’s how you select, the woman often will never get ahead.”

Thinking about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her attitudes about women’s place on the court, Griffith says, “For such a long time, it’s been normal and expected and accepted to have males dominate in leadership, yet we struggle to even accept female parity.”

“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mapping the Pace of Progress

Women are speaking up worldwide, and organizations—multinational corporations in particular—are both feeling and exerting pressure to align their workforces and leadership teams with the composition of their markets and the values of their customers and investors.


The Straits Times in Singapore reported in February 2018 that, “Women accounted for 10.8 percent of directorships last year, up a tad from 9.9 percent in 2016 and 9.5 percent in 2015. The proportion of all-male boards also fell slightly—from 55 percent three years ago to 50 percent last year, according to the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) yesterday.”

Vaidya is a member of the Diversity Action Committee, and is highly engaged in diversifying corporate boards in Singapore.

“In Singapore, board tenure is a barrier to placing women on boards.” To address the impact board tenure has on the independence of directors, she says “the Corporate Governance Council has proposed a rule to reassess when an independent director has served nine years or more.”

Board reassessment and refreshment may not be a simple solution, however. According to the Straits Times “about 40 percent of directors appointed over the past three years were first-time directors, debunking the notion that companies prefer experienced directors. But most of these new appointees were men—this was the case for about 70 percent of the top 100 primary-listed firms and more than 80 percent for all listed companies.”

“Women’s share among senior positions both in the public sector and in business is not trending towards equal representation, standing at less than halfway towards parity. Currently, only 22% of individuals holding senior managerial positions are women.”

- WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2017.


In much of the world, the drive for increasing the representation of women in organizational leadership comes from multinational corporations. For example in Argentina, Bomchil explains, “multinationals are taking the lead. Decisions are made at their European or US headquarters, they bring these norms to their companies in Latin America. For example, we do searches and they ask us to bring a slate of candidates half men and half women, because they need to make the numbers better inside the company. In the national companies and the local companies, we have a macho culture. They follow the trend but there is a long way still to convince them that this is not an imposition, this is really an advantage to the company.”

In an analysis of the Fortune Global 500 Industrial Companies’ China organizations, Seth Peterson, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and a member of the firm’s Industrial Practice says, “We surveyed 124 Industrial companies with Chinese subsidiaries operating in greater China on the number of leadership roles held by women,” and published the findings in the research report “Beyond Quotas—Engendering Diversity at Industrial Companies Operating in China.”

Peterson and his colleagues found striking differences in the participation of women depending on the origin of the companies surveyed. “In Western companies, 21% of leadership roles are held by women, 3.6% in Chinese companies, and 1.8% in Korean and Japanese firms.” To put these numbers into some perspective, Peterson adds, “Western companies have been aiming at this 30% target for some time, so they’re further along, and they set that target for organizations globally.”

For all the pressure from US-led multinational corporations, Lean In/ McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace 2017" study reports that in the US “women remain significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline. From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level. At every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines, and women of color face an even more dramatic drop-off at senior levels.”


“You have to distinguish among the different nationalities of companies,” Peterson advises. “The whole diversity and inclusion piece is a western company initiative, and in certain other company cultures and country cultures, there is more resistance.”

In his research, Peterson found that “many of the interviewees said that focusing on gender alone can be a mistake for a variety of reasons, and they were cautious not to over-promote. In the words of one CHRO ‘because if they [the women] fail, you might have to make a change.’ Peterson adds, “In his view, young professional females don’t want preferential treatment. Also ‘a pure gender-based approach might be hard for an already diverse Asia to relate to.’”

“Chairman Mao used to say ‘women hold up half of the sky.’” Linda Zhang is Partner-in-Charge at the Heidrick & Struggles Shanghai office. She explains, [The response to gender parity] “hasn’t been as striking in China, because women were always involved in working, there has always been the opportunity for women to work.” In many families it is a necessity, she says. “If you only had one man working, you might not be able to support a family.”

Most of Latin America, Bomchil says, “Is a very machista culture. There is an important trend towards gender parity but still we have a very, very long way to go.” She says, “It’s something very present in companies and society in general, especially because we have a lot of multinational corporations, and multinationals bring parity, diversity and equality to companies. Women in leadership roles is spoken about every day.”

The region faces challenges. According to Gallup, “Our data also shows that fewer than one in four women in Latin America overall say women in their countries are treated with respect and dignity. In 2017, this percentage was lowest in Colombia (15%) and highest in Nicaragua (46%). Numbers have been declining in Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Ecuador in the past five years.”

A country-wide view can hamper the recruitment of qualified women for organizations that fail to look beyond their borders. For example, Vaidya says, “Companies need to stop thinking they have to get people in their back yard. We need to think of diversity as outside of our cultural norms.” For example, she says, “There is a shortage [of qualified board candidates] in Japan today, but I don’t believe there is a shortage of people who understand Japan, who are culturally quite relevant, and who are worthy of being considered.”


North American and Western European multinationals set targets and articulate initiatives, but Peterson says “the country, nationality dimension is particularly important to look at.” He adds, “But certain western companies are making concerted efforts.”

Anna Luiza Osser, a partner with Osser and Osser Executive Search in São Paulo, Brazil recommends that companies should take iniatives in breaking workplace stereotypes for women. “Companies should encourage women to consider a non-traditional profession. For example, encourage a woman to start as an intern in a manufacturing plant.”

Professional roles within countries are not equally accessible to women. Peterson identifies “particular challenges in Industrial companies, because of the nature of the industry, and some of the functions that traditionally haven’t attracted females.” He adds, “The challenges within Industrial are universal.”

Zhang explains, “In some roles it may not be most suitable for women to thrive, for example sales or business development.” In China, a personal connection is vital to the client relationship, and that relationship is built on social interaction. Zhang says, “Some roles limit the relationship-building options for females, compared to the male colleagues they are working with.”

And yet employers are challenging some of these norms. “My Industrial clients want more female talent in leadership roles, particularly in technical functions,” Peterson says. “They don’t want to see a short list if it doesn’t have a female on it.”


Education is part, but not all of the solution. “We had our global partners meeting in South Korea, and a high profile woman business leader came to speak,” Logue says. “She said in Korea, women are all very well educated, but they're just now starting to be seen in leadership roles. Many women who wanted a career were choosing not to get married so there wasn't the pressure to have a family. This is only now changing and it is starting to become more acceptable for women to have a career and a family.”

Ullrich describes meeting a woman with a major tech company that was putting in Wifi in African countries. “She said in Africa they don’t have the same bias we have against women in leadership and politics, because all that mattered was if you were educated. In the countries where she was working, there were a lot of women leaders, because if you got the education, you were then qualified and they didn’t have 200, 500 years worth of a patriarchal society that said this is the role you should be playing.”

In Latin America, educating women has not been enough. Bomchil cites discouraging evidence: “About 60% of university graduates in Argentina are women, but in business only 2% of the top roles are held by women.”

Osser believes that in emerging markets, education will narrow the opportunity gap between girls and boys. “In emerging markets and developing countries, if families have to choose between a girl or a boy to go to school, they will probably choose the boy.”

The consequences could be high. Osser says, “The boy and the girl need to get the same education. It is important to create an environment where both gain consciousness of the equality between genders, but if you don’t have this environment early in school, the future will be no different.”


Balancing work and family is the number one problem for working women, according to Gallup and the International Labour Organization’s 2016 global study of men’s and women’s attitudes toward women and work.

To Osser, the greatest challenge that women face in the corporate realm is without a doubt child care, but women are starting to face a new challenge—the care of older parents. The family responsibilities, most of the time, still fall to women.”

In China, Zhang says, “More men are in the CEO or GM role, and we are starting to see more outstanding female GMs and CEOs.” However, she says, “I see a lot of female managers climb in their career while they still have family and social responsibilities, and that is where I see a lot of women struggle. Chinese society is still not used to the concept of a male spouse supporting the wife’s career [by staying] at home.”

According to Gallup’s regional director for the World Poll in Asia, Nicole Naurath, “In developed countries, such as South Korea and Japan, women face pressure from their families and society to leave the workforce—particularly after they have children. The availability of affordable child care is a major issue.” She says, “In South Asia, women and men are not treated equally. Women get less education and are more likely to be illiterate. They also don’t have the freedom of expression that men do.”

Bomchil is an advocate for a sweeping cultural shift to address the problem. “Women feel guilty about leaving home, so we need radical cultural change, reviewing all the roles and relationships, not only at work but at home and in society in general. I have partners in Columbia, Chile, Peru and Brazil, and we are having the same challenge,” she says.

For many women, it’s personal. “I do see a lot of female managers or directors choose to stay where they are and not take on bigger responsibilities,” Zhang says. She sees the issue as something different from work-life balance. “It’s work-life choice. If you take that choice, there are sacrifices you have to make.”


Danny T.S. Koh leads the Technology Officer practice across Asia Pacific for Spencer Stuart. He says, “There is the general realization that diversity is actually good, and we understand that as the company becomes more globalized, as we get more and more plugged into the global system, it just makes business sense to have better representation.”

While this article is focused on gender diversity, we recognize racial and ethnic diversity, the contributions of people with disabilities, and diversity of thought are critical elements of a diverse team.

“It’s an ecosystem we need to build on,” Zhang explains. “It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Approaches with promise

There are no quick-fixes, but the heightened interest in the treatment of women and gender disparity presents an important opportunity. How to best capture that opportunity will depend on factors including region, industry, and culture, and some approaches may be better suited to a particular organization than others.


“People having a voice—that is the core of inclusion.” Greene says, “We are way past the days when companies can say ‘look, we have a woman!’ and feel proud about that. The challenge today is to really say we’ve created opportunities, and we’ve done it for commercial reasons, we’ve done it for culture reasons.”

Accompany policy statements with action plans, Zhang advises. “In China, it’s great to have inclusion policies coming out, but we hear a lot of people talking from US headquarters but not fundamentally changing how they work or how they look at performance. If it’s only the policy statement, if it’s not actionable, it doesn’t really help.”

What does inclusion look like? Logue explains, “It will vary by industry.” For example, she says, “Look at women in tech and the barriers to women in STEM. How do you attract women to the technology sector? It’s not by making pink robots— it’s by creating environments that are welcoming to them and supportive of them and allow them to progress.”

Workplace inclusion promotes engagement and influences collaboration and employee retention, but it’s hard to measure whether a workplace is inclusive. Greene asks, “Do people feel that they can be themselves at work? Do they feel like they can be honest at work?” Speaking of his own workplace, Greene says, “I’ve had very open conversations, particularly with some of our African American employees and some of our female employees who are struggling to do that, but they feel that if they bring what they see as their whole selves to work, they are not going to be accepted. To me, that’s really where our focus is.”

A culture of inclusion is where the gains come from—the full, robust range of thinking, aptitudes, perspectives and experiences that vault winning companies past the competition.

“We are seeing culture as a driver in the workplace,” Griffith says. “This is where I think business leaders can have a real impact. We need leadership that’s going to reflect what it’s hearing, and then model, enforce and promote a culture that empowers people to work in agile ways, have flexible work patterns, and see strengths in differences. So the conversation isn’t about 'they don’t fit in our culture,’ the conversation becomes ‘this is what they add to our culture.’”


Catalyst developed a mentoring tool to optimize mentoring programs for women of color. “In many mentoring programs, the mentor’s traditional role is to support development of a mentee’s career and offer assistance in navigating the workplace. However, developers of mentoring programs whose goals focus on advancing the careers of women of color should be aware that a mentor’s traditional role can be extended to include sponsorship behaviors. “

While mentoring has value and is widely promoted in diversity and inclusion efforts, sponsorship is something different. Veronica Biggins is Managing Director of Diversified Search in Atlanta, Georgia. “Women have mentors, men have sponsors—and a sponsor is what you want.”

Biggins says, “A sponsor is somebody who is going to take you to that meeting. A mentor is going to say ‘you should think about… you should consider…’ but a sponsor is going to say ‘I’m inviting you to make a presentation to the board of directors, so get on it.’”

“There’s a big difference,” she says.


Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace 2017” report identified regional differences in employee engagement that “can’t be attributed to macroeconomic factors,” suggesting that “management practices are a key differentiator.”

Companies deploy a variety programs that try to improve the promotion and retention of diverse employees. “There are a lot of clients who have spent a lot of money on unconscious bias training and haven’t really seen the value in it, because too often it stops with the training class.” Noting the difference between compliance and real change, Greene says, “If everybody in the company has to show up for this mandatory training when it’s the last thing in the world they want to do, but they check the box so we can say ‘100% of our management has completed unconscious bias training,’ have you really changed anyone’s behavior?” He says, “I think the answer is no. We want to encourage clients to look at engagement.” Bomchil understands that engagement is achieved through a more comprehensive approach. For example, she says, “Promoting work in multidisciplinary teams helps people recognize the value of diversity, since they realize in a practical way that they achieve better and more innovative results.” She adds, “The work climate improves remarkably, and people are more motivated because they learn every day from the different perspectives diversity brings.”


“Because men at the higher levels of workplaces can take for granted their gender and leadership positions and their acceptance by masculine establishments, research shows they are more able than women to act as public champions—they are often perceived positively, while the reverse is true for female champions of gender equality.”

- from “Engaging Men on Gender Equality” Diversity Council Australia, June 15, 2017.

Peterson says, “One of the key drivers is having ownership from the top and objectives around diversity.” He says, “Sometimes that means educating senior leadership to get their buy-in and having them involved in recruiting as well. It’s setting that tone from the CEO and CHRO down, with high visibility as part of the corporate initiative.”

“The CEO really needs to believe in the cause,” Osser says. “The best scenario is that the men are involved in this initiative. The CEO has the power and the voice to influence this cause.” She believes that strong leadership from the top of the organization can overcome resistance to change. “Most men don’t like to participate in these initiatives, but when they realize that gender equality is associated with better results inside the organization, they start to engage more with the cause.”

Sometimes, seeing is believing. Osser says, “When the board has a woman on it, they see the benefits.”

Koh says, “I think another potential issue in terms of board management is succession.”

Board refreshment is a chance to diversify, but Koh explains, “Boards don’t focus as much on the succession of board members as they do on succession at the executive level, certainly not with the rigor and structure and dedication that they do for company management,” which is a missed opportunity. “Boards need to ensure that there is more balance and representation, at the executive level and on the board,” Koh says.

Koh sees an evolution coming. “There is a move to be more cultural, more dynamic, and that dynamic has led to the diversity discussion in the boardroom. I think the next ten years will show an equal focus on board renewal and executive succession.”

How powerful would it be if the desire for change ran deep, even into the family? Zhang says, “Corporations are rolling out big culture programs to give more flexibility to female colleagues and get them to step up and take on more,” she says.

“Eventually it will take husbands really supporting their wives, and male colleagues really trying to support female colleagues. It will take the whole society to understand this is critical, and it is something we do for ourselves.”


“Based on the results of a survey of more than 70,000 employees from eighty-two of this year’s participating companies, three trends that disadvantage women are clear: Women experience a workplace skewed in favor of men. Women of color, particularly Black women, face even greater challenges. Women and men see the state of women—and the success of gender diversity efforts—differently; men have a more positive assessment that often clashes with reality.”

- "Women in the workplace 2017," Lean In and McKinsey & Company.

Measurement “is the only way you are going to correct existing inequalities.” Zanella insists, “If you are a company, you have to conduct a review of where the women are in your organization.” Specifically, she says, “Start looking at the segregated data: how many women and how many men, their roles, their ages, their career progression rates, their education levels.” She adds, “If you can’t measure, you can’t change.”

Certainly measurement makes accountability possible. “People do what they get paid to do,” Biggins says. “Executives can say ‘I don’t want everybody to look like me, and next year your bonus is going to be based on a more diverse employee base.’”

“Getting to Equal 2018” global research by Accenture shows “workplaces in which leadership teams are held accountable for improving gender diversity are 63 percent more likely to have seen the share of women in senior leadership roles increase over the past five years.”

Another element of score keeping is doing the work to identify critical skills, and hiring based on those skills. Biggins says, “We still base hiring and promotion on likeability versus talent. If you were judging based on talent, that means the corporation would need to have done the work to figure out the competencies needed to do the job.”

Alarmingly, 48 percent of HR professionals surveyed in EY’s 2018 Global Leadership Forecast “do not use information from assessments and simulations to make leadership hiring and promotion decisions.” And when hiring and promotion are not based on objective criteria, Biggins explains “people will say ‘I’m not sure she’s quite ready,’ but they don’t say that about guys. They’ll say ‘let’s give him a chance, let’s see what happens.’ People have given chances to people who have ruined companies.”

As the number of women in organizational leadership rises, the dynamic among them changes, too. “I think women are seeing the power of having more than one woman in the room,” Reese says. “Not being a token but being part of a team can be a strategic advantage. Women are great colleagues, and not seeing each other as competition but as everyone on the same mission has become very energizing.”


Accenture: Technology that helps employees work remotely also enables greater career progression for women. Sixty-five percent of fast-track women, versus 49 percent of all women and 55 percent of men, use technology to attend everyday meetings virtually rather than being there in person. Fast-track women take greater advantage of flexible working overall, with 83 percent working a flexible schedule, compared with 73 percent of all women.


A number of consultants talked about the need for a culture shift before young people enter the workforce. The opportunity to help encourage girls is worldwide, from changing attitudes about the roles of men and women at work and at home, to efforts to get girls involved in STEM.

In Latin America, Bomchil says, “If girls are taught when they are very young how important technology, digital transformation, and artificial intelligence are—if they knew what it really means for the future, they would study more. It’s a big opportunity for both women and men.”

“This conversation is not just in corporations,” Reese says. “It’s in middle schools, it’s in high schools, it’s in colleges, and corporations and everyone is talking and trying to learn about this evolving subject.”


Search consultants are uniquely positioned to help their clients achieve their diversity and inclusion goals, and according to Logue share a responsibility for promoting gender parity.

“We have to acknowledge the important role that executive search firms play and the accountability that we have as search professionals to drive the change and promote gender parity,” she says. “Our clients look to us as trusted advisors to find and attract top leadership talent. ‘We can’t find any women’ is in the past. I have clients now who really want the best candidate. Even if it takes a bit longer, they want us to find someone to diversify their leadership team.”

As a search consultant Griffith helps her clients more effectively understand how many women candidates communicate. “Research shows that when you talk to females about a role, they lead with their weaknesses, and men lead with their strengths,” she says. “If recruiters don’t know how to engage those different groups, let alone all the other employment equity pieces, they are automatically going to disqualify, potentially, 50% of the candidate pool.” Griffith recommends training recruiters to understand how to listen skillfully, so they don’t miss out on the best candidates.

Requiring a search firm go through the diverse search process “is having some level of success,” Koh says, by helping clients of search think more broadly. He explains, “As we surface candidates, we keep an eye out for diverse and female candidates. A diverse or female candidate may not hit the bulls eye, but should be considered.” He adds, “We are not saying we should compromise criteria, but when clients expand their horizons they may see how diversity can contribute. We need to place more emphasis on more out of the box thinking.”

Logue agrees. “At the end of the day I do believe in a meritocracy. Skills are skills regardless of gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Everyone has to earn their spot at the table but leadership has to create an environment where it’s possible for them to earn their spot at the table. That has not happened in the past, but it’s happening now.”

Search consultants also do well to take their own advice, Logue says. “Sometimes Board members are going to their networks to identify new members, and their networks all look like them.” She warns, “You have to be careful of not doing that in search, as well, and make sure you’re casting a wide net from a diversity perspective. That’s helping to drive change.”

Reese sees an opportunity for search firms to lead by example. “When we are asked to help our clients it is important to me that we are using the firm as a lab to be successful ourselves.” By showing clients “that we have changed to become more diverse and more inclusive, therefore, we can help them become more diverse and inclusive, and also assess develop and retain that diverse talent.” Reese adds, “Starting at home is really, really important.”

To Greene, it’s also about clients of search and search firms being an employer of choice. “There is no reason to put up with an environment where people aren’t treated fairly, because there are going to be enough places that do. That’s the opportunity we want to bring to our clients and that’s the environment we want to create.”

Final Thoughts

Our contributors represent a robust set of geographies, industries, and practices. Each shared unique perspectives, unguarded, and in so doing modeled what trust, openness and inclusion can create. We thank them.

SETH PETERSON The change requires visibility, accountability, diligence, and continuity. Leadership support from the top is fundamental. 

RICK GREENE Companies that don’t create opportunities or policies favorable to women, that don’t listen to women, or don’t deal with individuals who create a hostile workplace for women are at a disadvantage. Everyone knows. There’s just no hiding. 

VICTORIA REESE When women come together to unite and engage each other, the support for change can be pretty powerful. 

ANNA LUIZA OSSER You need persistence, persistence, persistence to keep this on the corporate agenda, and with persistence I think the change will come. 

JANE GRIFFITH There is a significant difference between role modeling, when someone is looked to as an example, and normalizing, when people are seen as typical. This is about seeing people for their abilities and skills, not because of their gender or whatever diversity category they belong to.

DANNY T.S. KOH Our diversity gives us different ways to think, different ways to face the competition, and different ways to run the business.

AFRICA ZANELLA The word ‘awareness’ means throwing light, in this case on a subject that has been kept in the dark. It will have an impact, but how effective? We have to wait and see how the storm will settle.

JANE STEVENSON We’re in a situation where we need more and better leaders in the world, and not just in business. And half of the world is an available resource that we’re not using? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t afford to waste this resource.

LINDA ZHANG If you have a successful female colleague in your organization, it helps the whole company; if you have a happy wife at home it helps the happiness of the family, and of the whole society.

VERONICA BIGGINS There is a big difference between building the bridge or getting rid of the barrier. Look at the #MeToo movement. That is barrier breaking—that is crashing through.

KATHRYN ULLRICH Just pointing out that it’s unacceptable, and how widespread and pervasive the bad behavior is, is a good step in the right direction.

CRISTINA BOMCHIL I believe this moment is here to stay; it is a point of no return.

MALINI VAIDYA There is a movement. Starting with governance and gaining traction, we see the trend coming.

CATHY LOGUE Change is coming, but slowly. Globalization helps; and people are choosing to pursue education, people who can encourage cultural change within their home environments. These things will drive progress.

JIM CLIFTON Our research also concludes that women have every bit as much game-changing talent as entrepreneurs and “builders” as do men. The problem is, millions of potential star women leaders are on the sidelines, and this isn’t good for organizations, societies or countries. Failing to maximize women’s talent to lead, manage and build stunts global economic growth and fails humankind.