4 Steps for Achieving Gender Parity

Four years ago, at BTS, we implemented a data-driven hiring strategy. We prioritized evaluating candidates using observable behaviors that both the role and culture require.

In a world where women are handily outpacing men in college attendance—women made up 56 percent of college students in 2018—how is it possible that gender parity is inaccessible for many of the world’s top companies? Today, the 3,000 largest U.S. public companies aren’t projected to achieve gender parity until 2048.

Research proves that businesses with more diversity perform better, with higher returns on equity (10 percent), better operating results (48 percent), and stronger stock price appreciation (70 percent). So why aren’t companies employing equal numbers of men and women, especially if it’s better for their business? 

Through our work at some of the world’s top organizations over the last 25 years, we’ve uncovered surprising insights as to why diversity and inclusion are so challenging in the workplace. 

It Starts with Hiring: Eliminate the “Not Like Me” Unconscious Bias

In many companies, the hiring and promotion process operates in a “gray area,” relying heavily on relationships, checklists, and first impressions. Companies tend to focus on resumes—where did the applicant go to school? What was his or her last job? These metrics have been the formula for success over the last 50 years. But it clearly isn’t working when it comes to attracting diverse candidates. 

The reality is, leaders are unconsciously missing candidates who might fit a position because of their preconceived notion of what a great hire looks like. Instead of hiring someone unusual, leaders turn to the candidate they feel comfortable with—someone with a traditionally outstanding resume, who went to their alma mater, or passed the “I would hang out with them at an airport” test. The Harvard Business Review reports that unconscious bias is one of seven major obstacles challenging equal hiring opportunities today.

Based on this understanding, four years ago, we applied these insights to our own business and implemented a data-driven hiring strategy. We prioritized evaluating candidates using observable behaviors that both the role and culture require. 

This strategy allowed us to take the guesswork out of hiring and eliminate unconscious bias. As a result, our female candidates scored as high or higher than our male candidates, whereas in the past they were rated lower throughout the hiring process. In four years, we increased female representation among our consultants from 18 percent to 50 percent.

We achieved gender parity and you can, too. Here’s how:

1. Make diversity a top priority: Your business leaders own it and report out on it.

Without top leadership’s buy-in, you can’t really make progress. Harvard Business School professor emeritus John Kotter reports that 70 percent of change initiatives fail—this is why it is essential to have the leadership team take a super-active role in enabling the culture change necessary for bringing diversity to your organization. This means shifting hiring policies to be more data driven and less subjective, making a concerted effort to form diverse project teams, reflecting on (often unspoken) organizational norms and processes that have contributed to the lack of diversity, and personal leadership shifts. 

You may face skepticism. Some leaders might ask: “Is diversity really that important?” Self-awareness and the desire to change personal biases are essential capabilities for great leaders, and sometimes the best way to get skeptical leaders to grow is to have them own and drive change efforts. In every case, sponsors are critical for success.

2. Identify the key pain point.

Identifying what holds your organization back from diversity is paramount for solving the issue. This will differ from organization to organization depending on preexisting biases in the company and the field. You may be thinking, “My organization is already diverse, so this doesn’t apply to me!” But according to Christine Comaford in Forbeseveryone struggles with unconscious bias. 

For us, the pain point was getting diverse candidates into our hiring pipeline and ensuring they saw people like them during the recruitment experience. Consulting has a reputation for being an inflexible work environment, unaccommodating for employees with young children, etc. However, our Global CEO (Scandinavian values meets entrepreneurial capitalist) is very open-minded, ensuring that our people can have great careers while being present in their life moments, creating a virtuous cycle that strikes a great work-life balance. This information was shared more loudly to our employees and candidates than in the past.

3. Spread the message.

Leaders need to support and promote the initiative. Leaders have the ability to influence the culture throughout the organization, and their obvious support is essential for lighting the fire. In our case, our U.S. CEO (at the time) flew to each of our offices to talk about the initiative. I got on the phone with candidates to tell them my story of being a young working mother at BTS.

As a mid-size organization, our leaders were able to take a hands-on approach to promoting the diversity initiative to everyone. At larger organizations, cascading the message requires a more scalable approach. Digital event platforms featuring customized business simulations are one way to effectively reach thousands of people. These experiences immerse leaders in a tailored learning environment that allows them to learn and try out the new strategy at scale.

4. Implement the change: Have a “rookie mindset” when it comes to creating the environment for the most diverse, best ideas to flourish.

Taking small steps to shake up people's thinking on how they recruit, hire, train, promote, and think about people makes a measurable difference. For us, this meant being clearer in our hiring criteria, with observable behaviors and a more robust scoring rubric, and constantly working to build diverse teams. It sounds simple enough, but experience tells us change isn’t easy. 

Using tools such as customized business simulations to train leaders on the skills they need, coupled with the right mindset, can make change easier. 

In Liz Wiseman's book, “Rookie Smarts,” she encourages leaders to be rookies again, and this mindset is exactly what’s necessary for leading your organization through change. We need leaders who crave differences, and who are committed to shifting beliefs in support of a more diverse team. This must be the overarching mindset when recruiting new hires.

It’s important to realize that it’s not scary to do something different and new—it’s exciting. And being in an uncomfortable role forces you to be humbled, become curious, and seek advice from the best. As a result, you most likely will do the best work of your life.

Achieving Gender Parity and Significant Profit Growth

We achieved 50 percent female representation in 2016, and since then, we’ve seen our company continue to grow, accelerating topline growth in recent quarters. To date, we’ve had an increase in profit growth every quarter since achieving this landmark. 

Every company’s journey is different, and getting to gender parity doesn’t mean the work is over. Shifting mindsets is ongoing, challenging work, sometimes requiring interventions, working sessions, and coaching. But the difficult work pays off in retention of talent and a richer reservoir of ideas and perspectives that will make products and services better, driving tangible business results. 

Jessica Parisi is president and CEO of BTS USA. Parisi started her career at BTS as a business analyst in 1999, was promoted to lead BTS’ U.S. Western Region and then to managing director of the BTS Leadership Practice. In 2016, she was named president and CEO. Throughout her 19-year career at BTS, Parisihas pioneered turning strategy into action for leading Fortune 500 clients and many large and start-up software companies. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.



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