Blogs / 16 Apr 2024 9 min

Support for gender equity dwindles on the business agenda

3 tips for EDI leaders

By Sharon Peake, CEO & Founder, Shape Talent

We seem to be at a crossroads when it comes to gender equality. The last few years have seen increasing pressures on EDI practitioners. In the face of economic headwinds, many have faced budget cuts and are being expected to do more with less. We’re also seeing societal pressure to ‘move on’ from gender equity – a recent Ipsos survey across 31 countries found almost half of people (46%) think that we have gone so far in promoting women’s equality that we are discriminating against men1. In some places, notably the UK, we are seeing a societal de-prioritisation of gender equity.

Yet, as I heard in CSW68 (the annual gender equality event for all UN member state representatives) a few weeks ago, we still have a very long way to go around the world to achieve gender equality. We are at the halfway mark of the UN’s 17s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and globally, the world is not on track to achieve the gender equality goal – SDG 5 – by 2030. UN data suggests there has been no meaningful progress in the last year. As one of our clients, a senior EDI leader in a multinational organisation, said recently – there is growing resistance to gender equity but the house that is on fire is the one around women.

Employers can have a significant influence on gender equality outcomes. Collectively, organisations – from multinationals to small businesses – employ a huge proportion of the world’s population. Our actions, or inactions, have a compound effect and so it is important for all employers to play their part in accelerating gender equality in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.

But how, exactly? Recently I brought together some of the best minds to start the discussion around this. Equity, Diversity and Inclusion leaders, Chief People Officers and Heads of Talent Management of multinational organisations came together at our inaugural Gender Equity Exchange to discuss this very topic. It’s an intricate topic and as such the discussion will continue throughout the year, and beyond, as of course a complex challenge requires nuanced solutions. Yet I wanted to share some of the initial headlines from our discussion.


Let’s start with some of the challenges we heard EDI practitioners are facing in multinational organisations.

  1. Variable executive support: In some organisations, leadership are paying lip service to the importance of gender diversity, but not backing it up with the necessary actions. Sometimes this is due to apathy but in our experience often it is because they don’t know how to actively support the agenda. In the cancel culture in which we live they can be afraid of making a misstep. In our experience there is always a continuum of support on the Exco: one or two active champions, one or two active detractors, and a bunch of people in the middle. It’s these people in the middle who we most need to engage, to help them to become champions.
  2. Facilitating change in a ‘solid state’ organisation: Progress on gender equity is slow and at the same time we are observing regression at some levels in many organisations.  In the context of economic pressures, headcount freezes, and in some cases headcount reductions, organisations can’t ‘recruit their way out’ of the problem. Couple that with a tendency for employees to stay put in times of uncertainly, and lower natural attrition removes another lever for change. So the challenge is how to create change in a ‘solid state’ organisation.
  3. The challenges of targets. We are all familiar with the adage ‘what gets measured gets done’. So are targets the answer? Different organisational cultures, levels of EDI maturity and national regulatory pressures create challenges for organisations trying to implement gender representation targets or aspirations for their business operations across the world. In many countries, positive action – such as encouraging more women on long lists – is encouraged, yet positive discrimination – such as hiring a person because she is a woman – is illegal. So setting gender representation targets across countries with different law and interpretations of the word target (not the same as quota, but often mistaken to be), can be challenging. Similarly, when an organisation’s maturity around all things EDI is low – whether that be organisational knowledge, awareness, policies and practices – targets can suffer ‘organ rejection’.


So where do we begin? Some of the tips shared by EDI leaders in our forum ranged from executive sponsorship and engagement to public accountability to embedding actions into day-to-day activities.

  1. Enable executive sponsorship

It is critical to have the support of the most senior person in the business/business unit/area or region. They need to be seen sponsoring / communicating / taking action. Consider the following:

  • Leverage the CEO’s sponsorship to drive action and change. Create forums where business leaders have to report to CEO/Senior Leadership Team on gender equity progress and actions. When I was Head of Talent in a FTSE10 business we incorporated a review of gender equity progress into the quarterly strategic business review process. It was a standing agenda item, along with key talent measures, and each divisional BU head had to report back to the CEO and CHRO. A little healthy competition between BU leaders helped create and sustain momentum.
  • Find a sponsorship role for each member of the Executive. For example, one multinational organisation in our forum runs four campaigns a year and each campaign has a different sponsor from the Executive. The organisation helps them communicate the initiative internally and externally, giving the executive a platform and spotlight. This exposure drives demand for further opportunities to champion and lead initiatives. Ensuring the executive is supported in this process aids buy-in and helps to ease any worries about making a misstep.
  1. Make equity the job of every leader

Sometimes we hear the criticism that EDI is yet ‘another’ thing that line leaders are being asked to do. But the reality is leadership is the day job. This includes creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging and inclusion, and which all individuals thrive.

  • In the context of competing priorities within the business, look for ways to embed EDI and gender equity into the day-to-day. Every people decision and practice – from attraction, selection, onboarding, development, reward, performance management, through to exit should be considered through a gender lens. Help leaders ensure equity in their day-to-day decisions. For example, in conducting performance reviews and talent identification processes, is one gender disproportionately receiving more high potential and performance ratings? Ambition can be a dirty word for women – be sure they aren’t being penalised in succession plans for not being overtly ‘ambitious’.  Are women getting the critical experiences they need, or do they go to the people who have the loudest voices?  Is there gender parity in the distribution of bonuses and other incentives? And finally, when downsizing happens, what is the gender impact? All too often we see hard earned gains in women’s representation eroded in siloed restructures and redundancy programmes that fail to consider the organisation’s gender equity aims.
  • Every recruitment and promotion decision matters. Line leaders in multinational organisations can assume that in making a few new hires a year they have little impact on the organisation’s gender representation goals. But nothing could be further from the truth. Collectively every single recruitment and promotion decision matters. Particularly in organisations with low natural attrition, where there are fewer opportunities to make inroads in the gender balance. During the recent Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68) I heard a fantastic example of a company who had clear expectations of line leaders when it comes to recruitment. Hanna Vuorikoski, Global Head of People and Culture at Finish company Tietoevry Tech Services described how leaders were expected to drive gender balanced recruitment. She explained “they wouldn’t be allowed to present a list of only 20% women, that shortlist would be rejected by the next level of leadership. They are expected to have done the work to get a better balance”.
  1. Communication and accountability

Accountability is critical for every organisation on the journey to greater gender equity. Yet the approach that is right for your business will depend on your starting point.

  • Meet the business where it is at. For businesses who are some way into their gender equity journey, a public KPI commitment – on the website and annual report – can be powerful and motivating and can bolster commitment. Yet do this before the organisation has identified the underlying issues and built a robust plan to address them, and it’s like trying to navigate your way through the desert without a compass, map or supplies (to use an example from my native Australia). You’ll get lost, dispirited and will be vulnerable to attack (in this case, risk poor PR from investors, customers, suppliers and employees).
  • Look for actions and activities that can be communicated internally and externally to demonstrate commitment and maintain accountability. For those who started thinking about the roadmap to gender equality, some level of accountability is important. One organisation shared with us how their 13-strong executive signed-up to a declaration around inclusion. It was communicated widely, which helped provide visibility of their support which in turn created stronger support amongst leaders in the business. Becoming a signatory to the seven UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) – a set of Principles offering guidance to business on how to advance gender equality, is another powerful way of demonstrating support and ensuring a level of public accountability2.

The road to gender equity is nuanced and requires focused effort. But there are highly practical things that all organisations can do to accelerate progress. If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey, get in touch.


Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, 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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1 Ipsos, 2024. Global Attitudes Towards Women’s Leadership:

2 UN Women’s Empowerment Principles: