Blogs / 12 Apr 2022 5 min

Gender disparity – how to find out what is really going on in your organisation

By: Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant

Organisations seeking help with their EDI efforts can be like patients visiting the doctors (bear with me): you know something is wrong, you’re not quite sure what it is (although you may have an idea), you’re not sure how it happened, what is causing your symptoms, how to resolve the issue or what might happen if you don’t. In this analogy, the patient would hope that the doctor or healthcare professional will undergo a thorough diagnosis to answer all those questions and to be able to provide an effective remedy.

Similarly, many organisations on their EDI journey benefit from a thorough diagnostic exercise to ascertain the root causes, drivers and most importantly solutions to help improve. All too often, EDI leaders come to us with a self-diagnosis of the underpinning challenges, only to find through our diagnostic process that the actual barriers to change are quite different. Having a clear understanding of what the real issues are means that efforts can focus on solving the right problems.

The need for a thorough diagnostic

When setting an EDI strategy, organisations are likely to set out with the end goal in mind, and often this is by way of a target, for example: ‘we want to have x percentage of women in senior leadership positions by *insert year*’. Seems like an excellent SMART goal. Great!

However, with this approach alone, organisations can find themselves expending resources and time on initiatives that fail to deliver the desired EDI outcomes. This can be disappointing for the executors of EDI strategies and can erode employees’ confidence in the organisation’s EDI commitment.

Meaningful and effective change happens at two levels: structural and cultural. The former is visible such as policies and processes, the latter is the unseen, ‘under the surface’ underpinning behaviours and mindsets that will enable the inclusive environment in which aspirations can be achieved. As such, a well planned EDI strategy requires a thorough diagnosis to identify the underpinning challenges. At Shape Talent we always recommend using both a quantitative and qualitative approach to provide you with a solid foundation for your EDI strategy and plan.

Start with the current state, what do the numbers tell you?

Most executive committees value data, or at the very least are concerned by its absence. To begin telling a compelling story, you’re going to need some facts. You can collect data via a survey – such as the inclusion index in your engagement survey, or through a specialist survey such as the Shape Talent Three Barriers Diagnostic. And you can undertake a thorough review of your internal HR system for gender differences in your key people processes: recruitment, promotion, talent identification and succession planning, salary reviews, performance reviews, employee engagement, labour turnover and so forth. This review allows you to explore where the biggest gaps and issues exist.

Ideally, your review should explore data differences between men and women across a range of areas. Where you can, further segment the data by grade/level and (ideally) by business unit, location, function and any other categorisation that makes sense for your business.

Mining this wealth of data can yield incredibly powerful results. One client we worked with was surprised when their data clearly showed a challenge at the ExCo-2 level: up until that point women performed better, stayed longer and were more engaged than men. But at a specific grade level, these data points were reversed and women simply weren’t progressing. It was a powerful data story to share with their top leaders.

Digging deeper, the story behind the numbers

While the numbers will show you what is going on and where, understanding why is critical to achieving sustainable change. This is where qualitative data from sources like focus groups and interviews can be very powerful.

Progressing EDI within an organisation is a journey of cultural change. If culture is a collection of behaviours, norms, values and an overall feeling of ‘how things are done around here’, then gathering the perceptions, experiences and opinions of the people holding those behaviours, norms and values is the key to unlocking the insights which will enable change.

With qualitative data, the approach to gathering information is focussed around holding space and requires listening and probing. This is an opportunity to dig deeper to fully understand the lived experience of people and the cultural context of those experiences, and requires expertise. Ascertaining this ‘tone from within’ is a crucial part of your organisation’s EDI journey and so it is imperative that this is done with due care and skill.

The quotes from the qualitative data collection can be incredibly powerful to play back to executive committees. We’ve shared both written quotes as well as recordings with our clients. As one executive commented recently when we shared our anonymised focus group findings: “Wow, I am shocked that this is the experience of women in our business. I had no idea about many of these issues. We must now act”.

A powerful combination

Inclusion is a feeling and so the intention to create and embed an inclusive culture cannot be achieved with a focus on numbers or targets alone. Exploring the story behind the numbers helps to pinpoint the drivers that are really at play. And together these insights help you to focus on the two or three critical priorities, ensuring that your EDI investment is used wisely for the greatest impact.