Blogs / 12 May 2022 6 min

4 critical things you need in your gender diversity and inclusion plan

By: Shazma Ahmed and Sharon Peake

When it comes to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion many organisations are on a journey of varying maturity levels. While most recognise that change is needed, many come unstuck when it comes to knowing exactly what to do to achieve their goals.  So where exactly should you focus your efforts?

  1. Get the top team aligned

Key to getting meaningful traction is getting the top team on board and aligned. And this means ensuring gender equality goals are aligned with the business strategy. How does the EDI agenda support your organisation’s strategic goals? Where are the biggest pressures on the organisation when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion? Being clear on the answer to these questions is critical for the top team.

For some consumer businesses there can be a clear product innovation need – to attract more women consumers they need more women involved in the ideation, design, marketing and sales of products. Our professional services clients are increasingly finding their clients demanding diversity in the teams they work with – we’ve heard many stories of deals being lost due to non-diverse pitch teams. Talent attraction and retention is becoming critical to many industries as the Great Resignation takes hold and great talent is harder to attract. And of course, let’s not forget the market, regulatory and investor pressures on diversity across many sectors, given the increasing scrutiny on all things ESG.

In addition, there needs to be a clear and visible personal commitment from the executive team. The organisation takes it cue from the behaviours of top leaders. Are they asking questions about gender balance in leadership at each talent review? Are they holding their leaders accountable for achieving progress? Do they talk about this topic publicly? Some leaders might need support in this journey – worried about saying the wrong thing on a topic they often can’t relate to personally. Providing support through robust ExCo discussions or 1:1 coaching can help achieve faster progress.

  1. Build inclusive leadership at all levels

While the tone and messaging from the executive team is undoubtedly important to the success of any change programme, it is often the actions of middle and frontline managers that define an organisation’s EDI maturity.

The experience of being led inclusively, or not, happens at all levels of an organisation. Some organisations find themselves focussing on the tone from the top and setting outward commitments without addressing the day-to-day leadership in the middle of the organisation. This ‘tone from the middle’ can at best drive meaningful EDI progress, and at worst prevent or derail progress. Whether as a line leader, project lead or teammate, everyday behaviours and mindsets shape every person’s experience and in turn, the culture of an organisation. A client of ours espoused wellbeing and flexible working but was surprised when focus group participants spoke of “having to work 15-hour days” and being called a “part-timer” when leaving at 5pm to collect children from day care.  The reality on the ground was quite different to the aspired state. The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate, therefore, developing inclusive leadership capabilities at all levels will help ensure and embed inclusivity more meaningfully.

  1. Ensure supporting processes and practices are aligned

Behavioural change is critical but insufficient – long term effectiveness requires the whole system to be aligned with supporting processes. Positive leadership behaviours need to be supported with systems which reinforce the desired behaviours. Rather than trying to de-bias minds, which research tells us is exceedingly difficult, a more powerful approach is to focus on removing bias (often unintended) from processes.

One client we worked with was struggling to achieve greater gender balance. While they wanted to encourage more flexible options to attract women, their focus on headcount reporting, rather than costs, meant that job-share options were routinely dismissed for headcount reasons.

Another client hadn’t realised the downstream impact on their recruitment of having long lists of requirements on job descriptions. In their words “we never expect everyone to meet all the requirements, there is always compromise”. However, candidates don’t necessarily know this. The subtle social penalty that plays out for women who are unsuccessful for a role can deter applications. So, for this client, re-working their recruitment processes to be more realistic in job ads and to ensure a candidate experience which valued and encouraged women applicants, became critical to attracting more women into their talent pipeline.

  1. Develop Women

A transition to leadership requires an identity transition, and this needs to be nurtured. The leadership style commonly attributed to career success is the dominant masculine leadership style, which in itself is a barrier to many women for whom this doesn’t feel authentic. Creating an environment for women which enables and emphasises the importance and value of finding their own authentic leadership style, rather than adopting stereotypically masculine behaviours is a powerful way to achieving a more inclusive workplace culture. Research has found that women-only development programmes tend to have more open, honest and personal insights shared which in turn speeds up the ‘identity transition’. A KPMG survey of 3,000 women found that 70% of women were more likely to speak about career challenges to other women. In addition, the themes and learnings from such programmes can be fed back to the organisation to provide valuable insights which can positively impact some of the systemic organisational barriers.


Driving greater gender balance at the top requires an organisation-wide effort. Progress is a journey requiring ideas, interventions and of course resources and can’t be done without support from the top team, support from line leaders at all levels, processes and systems which reinforce the desired change, and a support system for women’s leadership identity development.



Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, and Shazma Ahmed is Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at Shape Talent, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.


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