The Better Boards Podcast Series: Gender Equality in the Workplace Starts at the Top

Emma Codd

The podcast and the article are brought to you by The Better Boards Podcast Series.

Despite living in an era of rapid technological advancements, ground breaking discoveries and instantaneous global communication, the World Economic Forum predicts it will take 132 years to close the global gender parity gap.

This stark assessment underscores the need for boards and organisational leadership to focus on implementing policies and cultivating organisational cultures that enable women to thrive. Deloitte’s ‘Women@Work: A Global Outlook’ report, now in its third year, looks at the views and insights of the world’s working women. The report paints a deeply concerning picture. Despite some improvements, an overwhelming number of women are experiencing burnout, challenges with hybrid working, and non-inclusive behaviours in the workplace. The stigma around mental health persists, and women are struggling to balance mounting domestic loads and increased pressure to be “always-on” at work, while many are also facing challenges with their personal health and worried about their futures.

As organisations around the globe seek to attract and retain top talent, there remains a critical need to dismantle age-old societal and cultural barriers, challenge biases, and forge a new path toward a more inclusive, equitable future. As board members, it is vital to understand these challenges and ensure strategies are in place to ensure your organisation cultivates an environment where its most valuable assets—its people—can succeed.

In this podcast, Dr Sabine Dembkowski, Founder and Managing Partner of Better Boards, discusses the Women @ Work report and what it means for board members, leadership, and anyone working to drive change and achieve true gender equity in the workplace with Emma Codd, Global Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for the professional services firm Deloitte. Emma leads the firm’s strategy on gender balance, LGBT+ inclusion, mental health, disability inclusion, and neurodiversity, alongside the development and delivery of thought leadership aligned to this strategy, including the annual ‘Women@Work – a global outlook’ report. In 2021 Emma was awarded Honorary Membership by the UK’s ICAEW for her work championing diversity and inclusion of women.

“The findings are deeply concerning, when it comes to the actual ability to attract and retain women”

Emma starts by highlighting that the third Women@Work report is representative across 10 countries and 5000 women within the workplace in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, South Africa, the UK, and the US. Results were “deeply concerning”. Many countries have targets or quotas for the representation of women on boards, and data shows that diverse businesses perform better, but to meet those targets, you need to attract and retain women. 

Boards need to know about this, as unless the business is retaining high-performing women, it cannot meet those targets or quotas. She feels that to get to executive level, women have to have been an employee and stay, but many women are saying they don’t want to stay with their employer.

“That is an improvement, but I hate using the word improvement because it feels wrong to be using it when the data that sits under that is still so concerning and is still so poor”

Emma describes how last year, the report found some very shocking, deeply concerning data around three areas – burnout, non-inclusive behaviour, and hybrid working exclusion. Also, women reported not having enough access to senior leaders and sponsorship. Things have improved this year in these three areas, but Emma emphasises this improvement is from a very poor position. Last year about half the women polled said they were burnt out, six in ten experienced non-inclusive behaviours, and around six in ten had been excluded while working in a hybrid way. This year,  just under a third of women say they are burnt out, 44% have encountered non-inclusive behaviours, and 40% have been excluded while working in a hybrid way. So, although Emma acknowledges improvement, it is still not a good picture. 

“These women are encountering these behaviours, and under half of them are actually not reporting it to anybody”

Emma explains that non-inclusive behaviours are microaggressions or harassment. Microaggressions are often unintended, seemingly small behaviours that exclude an individual. They include jokes at someone else’s expense, comments about how you identify, etc. The challenge is that while these may be unintended, they can deeply impact the individual, particularly when it happens for a prolonged period.

44% of the women surveyed have experienced at least one form of behaviour in the workplace in the last year that is simply unacceptable, mostly microaggressions. One in ten women in the last year moved from their employer because they had experienced microaggressions or harassment. Emma believes this is either because people are just not educated, don’t understand, fail to fully understand the impact, or simply think that they can say and do these things. She stresses that when someone experiences this sort of behaviour, they must feel able to talk to somebody or report it. More women reported them last year, but it is still less than half, and with so little reporting, that behaviour will continue, and then women will often effectively make the choice to leave. 

“The challenge, though, is that you when you don’t know if there are a low number of reports, you don’t know if that’s because people simply aren’t reporting”

Emma notes that the top reason for not reporting is that women didn’t feel it would be seen as serious, or that it was serious enough to warrant reporting. That has to stop. Usually, the relevant executives, such as the Chief DEI officer, should be in front of the board regularly and disclose how many reports of non-inclusive behaviour there are. When things go horribly wrong, people often go to the media or onto social media because they feel this is the only option left to them. They either tried reporting internally or had been too worried to report internally. So that reporting process and mechanisms are extremely important. Deloitte has respect and inclusion advisors, an important cohort of senior individuals for people to go to, enabling people to speak up. 

Education is also important, Emma says, especially education around microaggressions. Regardless of how senior someone is, you need a plan in place because this can go public very quickly, and we all know the impact that can have on an organisation. From a governance perspective, Emma advises that boards get to grips with this and spend time with the executive responsible for it, understanding what data means and how people are actually feeling.

“For over half of the women, we polled their mental health is a top concern”

Mental health and issues around menstruation and menopause are impacting women in the workplace, Emma says. From a mental health perspective, the data last year was so high that despite that improvement, it is still deeply concerning.

Mental health was a top concern for over half the women polled. Around a third are burnt out, and their stress is higher than a year ago. Emma describes one worrying issue that has significantly worsened from last year – the term “always on.” Only a third of the women polled said they feel they can switch off from work and need to be able to access support, yet only four in ten women say that they get adequate support at work for mental health. A quarter feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, which is significantly down from last year but only a quarter give the real reason when they take time off for mental health.

Emma recommends that good practice for organisations is to normalise the conversation about mental health and, from a board perspective, ensure the organisation has an employee advice programme (EAP). Senior leaders being open about their own experiences of these issues makes a real difference for people suffering in silence. To be an employer of choice, a successful business, this is something that can’t be ignored.

Emma also notes that the deeply personal issue of menstrual health is an issue for businesses to consider. When asked if they suffer pain or symptoms from menstruation or menopause, almost a quarter of the women said they do. So once a month, or longer for, women in menopause, they are suffering from adverse symptoms associated with a normal part of life. This can cause intense pain and symptoms, yet they do not take time off, which is a real issue with real stigma that we have to break down. Interestingly, women are saying they want policies that recognise the impact of menstruation and menopause on so many. Emma explains that the data for menopause is better than for menstruation, and only one in five of the women polled who are in menopause said they did not take time off. There are higher disclosure rates, possibly because of more workplace conversations. This is important for boards because, unfortunately for many women, it takes them longer to get to the top of a business and longer to get onto that board. For many women, it coincides with hitting menopause, and the symptoms are debilitating for many women. The conversation around this needs to be normalised so that people suffering from these things feel able to say so and access support. Unfortunately, the data tells us that it is just not happening enough.

“I am a big fan of talking about things”

Emma explains that board members need to understand the processes in place, talking to the CHRO and DEI lead. She advises that every organisation has two separate roles doing because they are fundamentally linked to each other but both distinct areas. She also strongly advocates normalising the conversation in exactly the same way as with mental health. Sharing experiences of senior women is a huge benefit. She believes that just talking about issues can have a significant positive impact.

The three key takeaways for effective boards are:

  1. Gender equality is a matter for boards. This is not something that is a “nice to have” but a business imperative.
  2. Look at the results and data of the report, as within it are a small number of women that work for companies getting it right.
  3. The report provides the insight needed to ask the questions you need to ask within the organisation and make sure that you are able to make those targets and quotas.

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To find out how you can participate in the Better Boards Podcast Series or for more information on Better Boards’ solutions, please email us at info@better-boards.com

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