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When it was announced last year that companies of 100 or more employees would be required to report on their gender balance from May this year, some organisations reacted with “fear and loathing,” says Yolanda Beattie, head of public affairs at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Despite many companies setting targets in recent years to support women into higher ranks, the statistics still don’t add up to a balanced, open and broad-minded workforce.

Ernest & Young

Global consultancy Ernst & Young (EY) is leading the way in the gender debate, having achieved 50/50 parity in all ranks up to and including senior managers by introducing point-in-time targets.

“Our clients are becoming more and more diverse. If we don’t have a workforce that’s the same and understands what they are about, we are not going to win business,” says Edyta Torpy, Oceania diversity and inclusiveness leader at EY.

But partner numbers have been harder to improve. “We are just under 18 per cent for female partners but nine out of 20 new partners last year were women and though that was almost 50 per cent it only made a small difference overall. We’ve realised it’s going to take a while,” explains Torpy.

Flexibility has been a key focus at the firm. As well as having open-plan offices, staff are encouraged to move to collaborative and quiet zones rather than having their own desks, and private rooms can be used for meetings, mothers expressing breast milk or for prayer time.

“We are trying to mainstream the idea of flexibility. The excuse that you need face time all the time just doesn’t wash any more, but I admit flexible working arrangements do not work all the time,” says Torpy.

A need for strategic planning

Implementing such programs is highly commendable but Grant Thornton’s Kim Schmidt, director of people and culture, fears that more active and strategic planning is needed across the board to move the numbers and create truly diverse teams.

The company has around 49 per cent female managers, 43 per cent senior executives and 33 per cent associate directors, with a target of 40 per cent. Eleven per cent of partners are women.

“Grant Thornton has a great culture and diversity policy. I think we are trying to do a whole lot of stuff and hoping that by mixing it up we will get the right outcome, but we need active steps,” says Schmidt.

“I think women will tolerate less and less an environment where they are not supported, aren’t given opportunities and aren’t having a fulfilling career,” says Schmidt.

Research into gender differences and motivation already proves this.

The McKinsey report ‘Women Matter 2013’ showed that female employees often left jobs because they did not like senior leadership culture. SHL’s ‘Talent Report 2012’, which included one million respondents, found no gender differences with regards to ambitions or skills at work apart from women having greater vision than men.

“They mainly differed in the reasons they wanted to rise to the top, with women citing recognition and job security and men wanting to wield power and avoid failure,” says Dr Jennifer Whelan, managing director of Psynapse Psychometrics, a company offering assessments and training in unconscious bias, and a visiting fellow at MBS.

The Gender Equality Project

In the Gender Equality Project, Whelan’s work with MBS on targets and quotas for women in leadership revealed having more women on boards does not necessarily improve the bottom line, but crucially it does not make it worse.

“For some companies the percentage of ‘at risk’ remuneration for executives failing to reach gender diversity-specific KPIs is often less than one per cent, which means there is no strong motivation for people to put effort into performing against it, particularly in the face of more pressing day-to-day organisational performance pressures,” says Whelan.

By all accounts, legal firms such as Allens, Herbert Smith Freehills (which has 21.5 per cent women partners) and Corrs Chambers Westgarth are on the case when it comes to gender diversity.

They have a regular balanced intake of male and female graduates, despite falling numbers of overall junior recruits, but are focusing on minimising pipeline leakage to retain future talent.

Allens took on 13 of its 64 clerks this year (five deferred to 2015) and Corrs employed nine of 39 student interns. Allens has revamped its career progression model to a merit-based system that allows the company to fast-track high potentials and rewards performance over career length.

“We are in a more volatile market where people need a broader range of skills rather than narrow specialisation, and a more flexible approach to work,” says Michael Rose, chief executive partner at Allens.

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