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Drive for diversity

All-inclusive teams can help boost business performance

The 2008 global financial crisis forced many companies into doing more with fewer resources. This put the spotlight on maximising staff potential and, in turn, on diversity and the inclusion of women in the workplace.

“The research all draws the same conclusion – that business performance is significantly enhanced where there is diversity of thought across the team that leads to innovation, and that teams that have more than 30 per cent of women outperform those that don’t,” says Sarah-Louise Jones, former managing director of gender diversity consultants Emberin and now managing director of Ten Steps Forwards in the UK.

Jones was speaking at a panel discussion called “Diversity in the Workplace: How to Make a Difference”, organised by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and executive recruitment and search firm ConnectedGroup. The discussion, which featured expert speakers from a range of sectors, was set up to explore practical approaches to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace and how to adapt to meet the evolving requirements of the business world.

Anne-Marie Balfe, people leader for Asia-Pacific financial services at EY, and the firm’s diversity and inclusiveness leader for Asia-Pacific, explained that while diversity programmes used to be seen as just a feel-good factor in a company’s CSR agenda, this is no longer the case.

For example, EY’s internal research shows that an inclusive working environment increases employee engagement levels, productivity and retention, and results in a higher-quality service. As such, the firm regards investment in diversity and inclusion as an issue of competitiveness, rather than employer branding.

“For EY, the investments we make in supporting gender diversity are critical to our business success. We view our diversity programmes as investments in the future of our organisation,” Balfe said.

Mike McCarthy, head of group infrastructure services for Asia-Pacific at RBS and a supporter of diversity at the bank, agreed that a diverse group performs better than a homogenous one. “I have no social agenda. Diversity is about getting a better business result,” he said.

According to Professor Prithviraj Chattopadhyay, a professor in the department of management at HKUST’s School of Business Management, women may be more open to using participative leadership techniques, which are useful in increasingly popular flatter, team-based organisations. Research also shows that women can be more empathic and are able to inspire and connect better with individual employees.

“In many jobs, there really is no reason to prefer either men or women. Women form a large percentage of the workforce and, by ignoring them for any particular job, you are significantly cutting down your chances of finding a talented employee at any level,” he adds.

The panel agreed with the idea that one of the reasons why women may be ignored for particular jobs is because it is often men who do the hiring – and people tend to hire others who are similar to them. “It is difficult for people to pick someone who is not like them,” said Anna Stephenson, chief operating officer of SinoPac and the panel discussion’s moderator.

Stephenson went on to suggest that companies should talk to their headhunters and ask them to provide a wide range of candidates, including women. They should then stick to the ones that come up with suitable female candidates on different occasions. She also proposed having at least one woman on the interview panel and at least two on the interviewing slate.

McCarthy agreed. “Young men hire young men. I want to see a qualified female candidate on the list,” he said.

Another hurdle to greater female inclusion discussed was men’s resistance to women working in higher positions. Chattopadhyay said that men often feel that women take positions away from more-deserving men. They also fear women will disrupt the “old boy network” and its male-orientated culture.

Women are also seen as having to spend more time with their family and not able to work the long hours necessary to hold down a job at the top.

Chattopadhyay pointed out, though, that one place where women are more likely to get a top job is in a troubled organisation. “Although women may be very good at leading organisations out of troubled times, the flip side to this is that they may be more likely to be handed top jobs when the organisation is troubled rather than healthy – at a time when men are not necessarily queuing up for the position,” he says.

There are several examples of high-flying women taking up a position on this “glass cliff”, he added, such as Erin Callan, who was appointed chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers as the firm headed for bankruptcy, and Yahoo’s former chief executive Carole Bartz.

“Marissa Mayer [now CEO at Yahoo] may also provide an example of this phenomenon before too long,” Chattopadhyay said.

Looking at Asia, Chattopadhyay feels that the few women who do make it to the top battle fierce resistance from the male majority, and often have to be more talented than their male counterparts to get there.

Panel members agreed that for diversity efforts to be successful, they require commitment, sponsorship and an investment from leaders.

“It is absolutely critical for the senior leadership team to be not just committed, but visibly seen to be leading by example and taking action to change behaviour and transform the culture so that it is more inclusive,” Jones said. “The leadership team needs to see diversity as a business imperative through holding management accountable and ensuring that actions are linked to reward.”

An organisation’s HR processes, such as performance management, recruitment and promotions, need to be aligned to support women in their careers, Jones said. Supporting programmes should include coaching, mentoring, leadership-development programmes and initiatives to change the mindset of senior leaders. “Diversity needs to become embedded in the organisation’s processes,” she said.

While companies that are building diversity programmes can refer to case examples such as Standard Chartered and JP Morgan – which can easily be found on the internet – people working in companies which do not actively support diversity will have to take matters into their own hands. The panel agreed that a “guide book” to that is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

“There is definitely stuff you can do. Join internal networks or create one,” said Beth Wright, director and senior counsel at RBS. She suggested that those who set up their own internal network keep in mind what women are interested in and be clear about what the network wants to achieve.

Women can also join outside networks, such as Women in Finance Asia and The Women’s Foundation.

Finally, the panel agreed that mentoring is very important, be it within or outside of the company. Stephenson added that the best mentoring is one that turns into friendship over time and is always remembered as “a wise colleague once said to me…”.