Can L'Oréal edge way forward for gender equality?

Most multinationals still struggle with gender equality. Rawpixel image via Shutterstock

The US division of L’Oréal has recently gained a new gender equality certification. The Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certification is a way that companies can “prove” their credentials as being committed to gender equality and can then reap the benefits of a more diverse workforce and appeal to customers who care how they treat their employees.

EDGE claims to be the only global business certification scheme for gender equality. Launched at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2011, it has since been tested and rolled out across a number of multinationals. Assessing and tracking progress have continued and 2014 has seen the first companies achieve the EDGE Certification across industries ranging from banking to consultancy.

So far so good. It sounds like a great idea, but will it really take off? We know that other standards have significantly affected consumer behaviour – for example, who doesn’t now look at the energy efficiency ratings when buying new white goods? But will this work for improving gender equality in our organisations?

Lessons from other measures

The scheme is not the first of its kind. Opportunity 2000 was set up in 1991 in the UK to increase the quality and quantity of women’s employment opportunities. It was believed that by having organisations sign up to its benchmarking list on gender equality, all the problems would be sorted out by the year 2000. Needless to say, they did not succeed.

The rebranded Opportunity Now showed how such things can become a tick-box exercise and if equality is measured by just looking at the policies in place, then you could believe that big UK-based corporations have no gender issues at all.

But it is much more challenging to get a realistic understanding of what happens in practice, rather than just on paper. You may have the perfect flexible working policy, but if your Division Head believes that anyone not working in the office full-time is “not serious about their career”, then the policy has no value. Research shows us that flexible or part-time working in many organisations is perceived to equate to “career death”.

Another challenge for these kinds of measures concerns how hard they are to achieve and what they are perceived to mean. Take Investors in People, a successful benchmark that allows businesses to demonstrate how much they value their employees in terms of engagement, development and management.

Most large organisations have successfully signed up to it, but we know from research that these same organisations are failing their female employees in these very areas, leading to poor female retention. For example, a number of the UK’s largest law firms seem happy to have a workforce of more than 50% female lawyers, yet an average of 72% of partners (and 89% of equity partners) are male.

Importance of measurement

Without real data we end up with myths about gender issues, which means it is all too easy to lay the problem at the feet of the women whose careers it affects. And erroneous reasons are given for gender inequality: women are blamed for having children; choosing the wrong career path; not being ambitious enough; being too aggressive; not leaning in; being too emotional; being too soft; or not “manning-up” enough.

But through measurement you can build a clear, data-driven picture of whether or not pay is equal for equal work, recruitment and promotion, leadership development training, flexible working and company culture.

Many companies do not measure enough for a number of reasons. Some have (usually incorrect) assumptions that they know what is going on. For example, the idea that women freely choose to leave when they have children. Another reason is the fear of what they may find, namely learning of and then having to address the gender pay gap. Or, some are just unaware of what they would do with the information they might find.

What to do with the data

Measurement is important but you have to have a plan as to what to do with the data. Most organisations do not aim to be gender biased, but ignorance is no excuse. For some companies, taking the decision to measure is such an important one that it feels like an accomplishment in itself and they rest on the laurels of this success. But reporting is only ever a (very important) first step, the means not the end to tackling serious issues of inequality.

Companies must be prepared to celebrate success where they are getting things right, explaining both to their employees and their customers what they have done and why, and signing up to standards like the EDGE marker qualifies for this. But they must also take a good hard look at themselves in areas where they are clearly failing women and losing out on the best female talent.

Most companies need help to rid themselves of gender bias in their recruitment, performance management, talent management, leadership development and compensation. It’s an issue that has been years or even generations in the making and must be treated like any other business challenge. First data must be collected to give an accurate picture of the situation, then experts must be brought in to deal with it.

Like any change programme in business, if it is not led convincingly from the top, it is bound to fail. The EDGE marker is well-intended and backed at the highest levels. Let us hope that the companies who have chosen to invest in it will invest as much in their women.

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