Mark Ryan is a former Country Managing Director for Accenture. He is the Chair of Blueface and a Non-Executive Director of Wells Fargo Bank International, Immedis and Econiq He is a board member of the Abbey Theatre.
This interview was conducted by Clodagh Hughes in October 2017.
Why is progress in achieving gender balance in businesses so slow?
I think it’s been slow because unfortunately you’ve got traditional behaviours and mindsets. You've got hard wiring around the role of men and the role of women. You have a whole series of things going on like traditional jobs for women, unconscious bias, how people behave, and what are their traditional values.
While everyone thinks equality is really important, I would question whether there is a real commitment to change. A real commitment is actually going out and saying this is wrong and “we need to change it”. That means putting together a plan with clear actions and how you are going to change the way this company acts and thinks and remove things like unconscious bias.
What we are talking about here is fundamentally about a cultural change and, because of that, it is very difficult. To have a chance for success, you need a clear picture about why the current situation is unacceptable, why it’s going to be better if we change. You also need people to lead the organisation through it.
What stops the commitment?
The reality is that, for most organisations, there are lots of priorities around customers, cost control, new technologies, new markets, and a whole series of things. It hasn't been made clear enough that gender equality and more diverse decision-making is good for business.
The case for — and value of — gender equality has not been sold up the line. When a new CEO, assuming in this case that it’s a man, comes into an organisation and looks around at the challenges, he just doesn’t see gender equality as a priority. If the truth is known, many companies do not change until they are forced to do so.
So is forcing the agenda the way to go?
Look at Norway, which was the first country back in 2003 to force the board percentage agenda by saying boards had to be 40% female by 2008. That was the first time companies were actually forced to take action.
Many of the Nordic countries followed suit and were the leading lights on quotas for female representation on boards. By and large these board targets were met. But beware of false statistics. If you looked more closely at the female participation at different executive levels within many of these companies they didn’t reflect anything like 40%. You can get to 40% on boards through quotas, but if you don’t get equality across the executive levels in the organisation, then you have failed. You have to create a strong pipeline of women being promoted at every level in a company before you can claim success.
The reasons people are appointed to boards are because they have strong executive experience. In my view, we are actually doing women an injustice. In fact it strikes of tokenism if we put women on boards without developing female executive capabilities across the organisation. If you have strong pipelines of women advancing and being promoted across organisations, then you create a far greater supply of female executive talent for the boards of the future.
Tell me more about what you did in Accenture.
In Accenture, we recognised that we had an attrition problem. For a consultancy business, this is a big problem because you have developed these people in terms of their skills and capabilities and they leave. All this time, effort and investment into people and they walk out the door. You have effectively lost hugely valuable assets.
When we did the analysis, we found that three times more women were leaving than men. And we also noticed that women between the ages of 26 and 36 were most at risk of leaving. We then ran a series of focus groups to try and understand the problem better.
Not surprisingly, the lack of role models and levels of unconscious bias were big reasons. We also found that women in Accenture at a certain stage in their careers, especially when they were making life decisions, couldn’t see a career path for themselves.
There were not enough role models and those that were at senior levels were not the type of role models they necessarily wanted to follow. They saw a career as a meritocracy based model with an upward only career path. They questioned that if they wanted to take time out to travel or have kids, could their careers be put on hold for a while. They felt that there was no real flexibility in their career choices and saw better options for this outside Accenture.
So, we set about a plan to change this and we created a whole momentum around supporting, mentoring and retaining women. We called it the Accent on Women (AoW) programme and it involved a whole range of initiatives around supporting, mentoring, networking and training opportunities for our female employees. It also included a strong maternity programme, which provided guidance to women preparing for maternity leave, support for women on maternity leave and assistance transitioning back into the workplace.
So did you fix the problem?
Yes, we fixed the problems that existed and the key success factors included the fact that it was led from the top. And I don’t mean the person at the top or the executive team just pitched up for the launch and then disappeared. It was led from the top in terms of active Senior Executive involvement (men are key in this regard), fantastic woman “champions” and a relentless focus on change. We constantly talked about it and constantly reinforced it as important part of our business for the future.
We set clear targets. Our target in the short term was to reduce attrition to parity but we also had targets to increase the number of female managers and senior managers being promoted to ensure we had a strong female pipeline emerging.
Involving men was also crucial. Initially we put the case to them in business terms. We highlighted the fact that, as a consultancy business, if we continued to invest heavily in recruiting the best and brightest graduates and then lose them we just won’t grow as a business.
We ran workshops for men where we highlighted things like unconscious bias and how women felt about some of our behaviour. We also made it clear to men in leadership positions that they were now part of the solution. We told them that they had to start mentoring and supporting women and we challenged them all by asking: what are you personally going to do to help us fix this problem?
And most importantly we built it into performance management. At reviews, senior managers and executives had to tell us what they were doing to promote gender equality in their areas. What have you done for gender equality? How many women are you mentoring? How many have you promoted? What have you done to support women on your project teams?
Was there any push back from male managers?
Yes, there was some noise initially. Why were women getting all this support? Many thought that we could not develop flexible working in a client-facing business. We knocked that assumption on the head by asking our clients. When we sat down and discussed with our clients what we were trying to achieve, we were, in most cases, able to accommodate people.
We also made the panel of external coaches which was made available to women available to our male managers too.
There was push back, but it was fairly limited and, as we articulated the problem, and how we needed to change it, the push back faded away.
And what about women? Was there any push back from them?
There was no real push back from our females who saw the Accent on Women programme as a huge vote of confidence in them and something which was hugely valuable to their careers. This also became clear to our new female hires as they looked forward in terms of their own careers. It was also a huge benefit as a recruiting aid and differentiator when we spoke with female students in the universities.
There should not be barriers because what we are talking about here is equality. I hate when someone says to me: “I heard you talking about that gender diversity thing”’ I always retort and say: ‘No I was talking about gender equality. 50% of the population are female. It’s equality I am talking about not diversity.”
Based on your experience in Accenture, what actions were key and what can other companies learn from them?
We always positioned this as an equality issue not gender diversity one. That’s important.
I’d say to other organisations: you have to have a plan, which clearly articulates what you are trying to achieve, what actions you are going to take, what success looks like in terms of targets and then you need to measure it. Without a plan, it’s just talk.
Also, you need to be relentless in the pursuit of gender equality and give it ongoing board and executive level attention. This is not a standalone initiative or about putting a balloon in reception. This is a culture change initiative and changing culture is extremely hard. It takes time, effort and real commitment.
Promoting high-potential women and creating real momentum around equality had a hugely-positive impact in the organisation. It sent a great signal to men and women that we were really serious about this. It created more female role models and changed the management dynamics in a hugely positive way.
The role models are absolutely critical. You need both men and women to champion gender equality both in what they say but more importantly in how they act. They need to be out there to really champion and inspire younger women. That makes a huge difference.
The dial has been slow to move in the last 20 years. How confident are you that it will move over the next 20?
I’d be much more confident about the next 20 years. The whole issue of gender equality is much more centre stage across society now. Gender inequality is no longer acceptable and cases of inequality continued to be highlighted and acted upon.
Generation Y are much more in tune to “doing the right thing” and will be a huge factor over the next 20 years. They recognise far more that not having diversity of thought or decision-making is a lost opportunity for organisations.
The graduates that organisations want to recruit today are very bright and are extremely focused on wanting to know what you, as a company, are doing in relation to corporate citizenship, gender equality, and the diversity/LGBT agenda and what you are giving back to society. That’s the world they live in and are coming from and to attract these types of graduates, you have to demonstrate your commitment, not just talk about it.
I really believe, however, that if we want real change to happen in the future we need to start thinking about this at a much earlier stage.
Accenture did a lot of research on the STEM issue and why so few women were going into STEM subjects. The fact is if you want to really change things, you have to go back to the career guidance girls get at school, their parental advice and stereotyping as children. This is where the hard wiring starts for men and women.
Part of the issue is also that not enough women do as broad a range of university subjects as men do and this is a little more restrictive for them. Again, role models are hugely important here. A lot of work going on in GE now is woman in non-typical job roles saying how they got there and that’s helping young women to go for careers or subject areas they may not previously have considered. We need a lot more of this.
What about women themselves; do have they a role to play?
In all my work in this area both in Accenture and in the Abbey Theatre, I think that “confidence” is a huge issue for women. Women typically are not comfortable pushing themselves. It’s easy to say be more confident but it's a very hard thing to do. I know that women just don't go for opportunities until they have all the qualifications whereas men just go for them regardless
Our mentors in Accenture worked on getting women to push themselves because, if left to their own devices, we found a lot just would not have gone for that role or opportunity.
Lack of confidence is not just a female thing. Men also lack confidence but its ok to lack confidence in an environment which is already male orientated. If you lack confidence in a world where inequality exists, then it’s just putting females further behind the gain line.
As I mentioned previously, things are definitely changing. Generation Y men and women are coming into companies with much more confidence than their predecessors — and with a much greater sense of what equality is all about. If they are made to feel like fish out of water, they will just walk out the door and they will go to somewhere where they feel good about themselves because of equality and inclusion.
So the companies that understand the value of equality and diversity are the companies where so many graduates will want to go. And that's why Accenture has been very successful in recruiting graduates in a very competitive environment because grads like hearing about mentoring for women, about diversity, about LGBT initiatives. It feels like a good environment to work in where inclusion is important.