“Diversity”, “a gender-balanced workplace” — phrases that in the 90s and early 2000s drove thought leadership on inclusivity and progress in the professional world.

Over the past 20 years, as workplaces have become more gender balanced than ever before, one thing is clear: the numbers aren’t adding up.

A 50:50 ratio is not helping women achieve equal pay, climb the career ladder and reach leadership positions. Make no mistake, this isn’t only bad for the human condition — the quality of life for half the professional workforce — gender imbalance at the most senior levels is downright bad for business.

Our 2015 Gender Balance study showed that teams with gender-balanced management pull in a staggering 23 per cent higher gross earnings, with healthier fundamental metrics across the board, including 5 per cent higher brand awareness, 12 per cent higher client retention and 13 per cent higher organic growth. These companies are safer places to work as well. Follow-up research in 2017 confirmed initial findings and additionally found a lower incidence of work accidents in entities with gender-balanced management.

These facts bear repeating: companies with gender-balanced management gross nearly a quarter more than those without, do so based on higher metrics that are foundational indicators of company’s health, and are safer places for everyone to work. Yet, with the benefits clear, women have a remarkably difficult time advancing into senior leadership roles.

Women occupy under a quarter of all senior roles globally, an increase of only 3 per cent since 2011. When it comes to board roles occupied by women, the global quotient falls to a deeply troubling 15 per cent.

Implicit bias

It is not that women are viewed as less capable leaders. Far from it. Study after study show women are viewed equal to men in intelligence and capacity for innovation, while ranking higher in strength, compassion and organisation. The obstacles to women in leadership force us to drill down, then, to deeper systematic and implicit biases faced throughout a career journey.

In America, four in 10 say women need to work harder to reach the same leadership roles as their male peers. A joint Lean In and McKinsey study surveyed 222 companies and 70,000 employees in 2017, found women acting forcefully — a core requirement for senior leadership — were more likely to be viewed in a negative light. The study further found women who petitioned for their promotions were more often labelled as bossy, intimidating or aggressive.

These studies shine a clear and unambiguous light on implicit bias, the idea that women exercising leadership are looked down on and challenged throughout their careers simply because they are women. They have a harder time executing projects, advocating for a promotion and leading teams than their male colleagues.

Ultimately, this results in fewer women in advancing leadership roles, which ultimately leads to significantly lower representation in C and board-level roles.

Implicit bias thrives in the darkness of ignorance — held often by the well intentioned who are unaware or their own shortcomings. A proactive awareness of these biases, coupled with structured efforts to change, have proven effective at moving the needle. As women rise up the career ladder, peers and managers need to proactively include female leaders’ at the most senior tables, welcomed to exercise authority in heated debates and everyday engagement, and always invited to the core social gatherings in which higher-level bonds are reinforced.

At Sodexo’s Middle East headquarters, we are addressing these challenges head on to proactively change our culture. Since 2016, we’ve moved the needle on gender balance in our leadership team, going from 0 to 40 per cent female members. Looking forward, we have firm commitments that we will have gender-balanced recruitment slates and at least 40 per cent of the recruitment and promotion opportunities above manager level at our regional headquarters will be held by female talent. We are also moving the needle on board roles.

As our experience reinforces, only by actively working to reinforce an inclusive culture can we grow beyond the current numbers. With the awareness of all team members and structured, thoughtful reconciliation of core culture — we can absolutely move the needle on gender balance and drive progress.

(Simon Seaton is CEO — Onshore Energy & Head of Middle East, Sodexo.)