Building the business case for gender and diversity in the workplace

Heather Ash, partner, Simpson Grierson

The Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association recently released a 100-page report about the lack of women at the top of the legal profession, and other sectors shouldn’t ignore their own numbers.

Why? Because BNZ just released a 40-page study outlining the growing case for diversity as a competitive advantage.

The reasons are adding up — recruitment and retention of top talent, increased innovation, access to new markets — and the importance of diversity can no longer be ignored.

Like BNZ, companies often begin the discussion about diversity with gender. In February 2011, the bank began its research on gender issues within the organisation using focus groups and interviews. It now has programmes to support ageing workers and foster young Asian leaders.

Not to pick on the legal profession but there's an amplified disparity in that industry’s workforce and perhaps some of these examples could get other sectors thinking.

Although women have surpassed men in numbers for law school enrolment and admissions to the bar, they’ve fallen severely short when it comes to earning partner status. Female partners make up about one-fifth of partners at large firms and none of those firms have achieved gender parity at partnership level.

The statistics for Queen’s counsel show an even greater gap. Women make up 36% of barristers in New Zealand but only 15% of QCs. Of the 26 new silks appointed in 2013, just four were women.

There are a handful of role models who young women can look to in the legal profession. (Among my picks are Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann and leading trust litigation and relationship property lawyer, Lady Deborah Chambers, QC. I’ve seen both  in action and can easily say they are women I’d want on my side.)

But what if you are a young Maori woman? Who are your role models in the legal profession? Davina Murray and Donna Hall have been in the media spotlight the past year.

Although the association’s study dives deep into the gender issue – women as caretakers for their families, rather than breadwinners – it doesn’t delve into culture or ethnicity.

At least one law firm is looking to take the discussion further and widen its scope outside of the gender gap.

Simpson Grierson is in the process of finalising its diversity policy and the firm is looking at setting targets for the promotion of women within the firm, says Heather Ash, a partner leading the firm's local government and environment group in Auckland.

She joined Simpson Grierson 20 years ago, she says, because the firm had the best reputation for hiring and promoting women. Fast-forward to 2012, and at the partners’ annual meeting, partners were still questioning how women were progressing.

Last year the company got serious about creating a diversity policy and diversity committee, which Ms Ash heads.

“In the 21st century it’s important for our clients to know we are doing this and it’s important for our staff to know. The decision was driven by the partners at Simpson Grierson,” Ms Ash says.

The firm is looking at setting targets for the promotion of women, not quotas, she says.

“There is a big difference between a target and a quota. But if you have a target, the research shows you are likely to increase the number of women you are able to promote because you have to actively turn your mind to it,” Ms Ash says.

One way the firm plans to do this is through what it calls “sponsoring.”

A mentor is someone to talk to about advancement in career or issues with a piece of work, Ms Ash says, but a sponsor takes it a step further.

“When a sponsor knows the firm is looking for someone to fill a gap in the organisation, they can push you into new and challenging roles,” Ms Ash says.

Several studies out of the US suggests that women are less likely to ask for raises, promotions and even venture capital funding because they don’t think they’ll get it.

Researchers at the Simmons School of Management in Boston found that women often undervalue market opportunity when they’re pitching to investors. Men will often give the best-case scenario while women will give a more realistic one.

Other researchers have found women won’t ask for pay rise as often as men because of what they call “locus of control.” The idea is used in studies and quizzes about careers to examine if people believe the events that affect them are internal or external. Men exhibit internal tendencies and are inclined to believe they control their own destiny.

Here in New Zealand, there is another growing variable outside of gender: immigration. About half of Aucklanders are now foreign-born and about half of working-aged adults in all of New Zealand weren’t born here. 

This doesn’t just affect the labour pool. It also affects the changing appetite of customers, consumers and clients.

The idea of actively pursuing diversity as part of a business plan is a somewhat novel concept in New Zealand. Most businesses hadn’t thought of it until NZX introduced its diversity listing rule in 2012.

It requires companies to include the gender breakdown of directors and senior management in their annual reports. New Zealand is the 16th country to require such reporting.

Diversity as a strategy appears to be gaining traction as a variety of sectors are starting to look at the issue.

IAG NZ’s CEO Jacki Johnson has been vocal about the role of diversity as a fundamental platform for ensuring a sustainable future for its business.

In December last year, she spoke at the Women in Leadership Summit on the topic of effective and resilient leadership within IAG. She also supports Diverse NZ Inc, which works with leading Kiwi businesses to promote the business gains resulting from diverse leadership and diversity of thought.

IAG also formed its Diversity and Inclusion Action Group last year. Each quarter the company carries out a diversity scorecard to measure its objectives.

And every scorecard begins with that initial baseline assessment.

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