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In this exclusive interview, Mara Swan, ManpowerGroup’s executive vice president for global strategy and talent, points out that companies will not make progress on gender diversity until they “actively manage” the issue.
Why are we still talking about bringing more women in leadership roles, why is it not already happening?
Because there has been a laissez-faire attitude towards managing it. In my over 30 years in HR, I’ve seen how developed nations have tried to fix the problem with mentoring programmes, affinity groups, but that has done nothing to change the outcome. I think we are not dealing with what the true issue is.
Which is what?
We have to look at why we want diversity.
Labour force, particularly in the developed nations, is ageing, has lower birth rates – and then we complain about the lack of skilled people, while there’s this untapped resource available right here which we aren’t conscious about. Women are the most under-tapped and under-valued human resource within country borders.
There are also a lot of stereotypes about the role of women in society in a male-dominated culture.
As a head of HR, what are you doing about the issue?
ManpowerGroup was actually started as a company to provide work for women. So, we’ve always had a very open attitude towards this. We think it’s about giving opportunity, which we do in terms of our three Es – experience, exposure and education.
Labour force, particularly in the developed nations, is ageing – and we complain about the lack of skilled people, while there’s this untapped resource available right here which we aren’t conscious about.
One of the things I do actively is look at developmental assignments we have given to our top leadership, in terms of the three Es they are getting. I review this monthly with the executive management committee.
Can you share some examples of how you provide each of the three Es?
In terms of education, we ensure equal representation of women and men in training programmes. We have an accelerated leadership programme kicking off globally in April where we are adamant about equal access and opportunity.
As for experience, it is about really learning on the job, and getting coached by their leader.
And exposure is about giving people varied opportunities, such as our country head of Mexico, who ran a global sales programme for us. That gave her a broader perspective, which tied in to her individual development.
You mentioned affinity groups are not really doing their job. How can such ideas be improved?
Companies have to look at the intent of those things, are they doing it just to check a box? Does it mean they abdicate any further responsibility on this?
One of the first things I would do is a data analysis – where in the organisational pyramid do women stand, where are they coming from, who moves up, and who moves out. I would also look at which managers produce the best women leaders who get promoted, and the ones who don’t.
Then you can look at tactics. Most companies just start from tactics, by borrowing a “best practice” they’ve seen in other companies. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a sore.
How do you think these trends play out in Asia?
In the last 18 months, I’ve seen much more discussion about women leadership in Asia. Women have a stronger voice, and they want to work for companies that care about this.
The other trend is that more women are choosing to become entrepreneurs, to use their talent for themselves. Some countries, like India, have higher rate of women CEOs than the United States. But if you peel that data another layer, you find a lot of this is because of family-owned business, and you have to wonder if they’re a figurehead or the real CEO.
I do see a lot more women with technology backgrounds coming out of China and India, so that gives me a lot of hope to see them in top leadership roles in global companies.
Most companies just start from tactics, by borrowing a “best practice” they’ve seen in other companies. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a sore.
Going back to your point about the stereotypes, we tend to ask women leaders how they balance work and life, but never their male peers.
I think it links to traditional roles and expectations, for example, older generations had some stereotypes about what women will do and what men will do.
The younger generation is different. When my daughter got married two years ago, she drew up a chart of all the household chores divided between her and her husband. It’s more natural for women today to share that, and the men they are spending their lives with expect it to be shared. When I got married, I didn’t do that.
A lot of it is also what our definition of success looks like. The younger generation does a better job of integrating their personal and work lives.
Even so, companies have a drastic drop-out rate in moving women from middle management to top leadership roles.
Worldwide, women enter the workforce equally, but by the time they hit mid-career, when they’re adding the most value to the company, they start moving out. To me, that’s a sign that what we’re offering doesn’t fit what they need.
Either we have to decide that we are okay with that kind of loss of human potential, or we’ve got to change the way we work.
Work is currently organised around being at work. Measuring success by presenteeism does not give flexibility to people to manage their personal and work lives. Managers have to be better at managing outcomes and the ways in which they measure inputs.
When my daughter got married two years ago, she drew up a chart of all the household chores divided between her and her husband. When I got married, I didn’t do that.
Do you see HR leading more flexibility in the workplace?
We’ve talked about flexibility a lot in HR, but I believe companies still have a one-size-fits-all philosophy.
Companies may have a fear of differentiating between employees, and having to explain why they are doing that. HR has to get better at doing that as employees are going to demand it.