Opportunity, not genetics

25th February 2016

I am a man. No doubt I have benefitted from the advantages in life that being a man has given me.

But I believe that a world in which gender equality is the norm will be better for me, for my three-year old son and everyone else.


It’s really simple. My experience, his experience, your experience of work will be better when the leadership of organisations reflects the world around us.

A great employee experience is driven by many factors including trust, fairness, the quality of managers, and genuine opportunities. No organisation can pretend that it’s delivering a great experience if 50% of the population is clearly underrepresented in leadership.

Trust in organisations is at an all time low. One way that we can build trust is for people to know that they are treated fairly. That there is no bias – conscious or unconscious – in the way that people are treated and decisions made. That as people rise through organisations they do so on merit, not because the system is rigged in their favour as a result of an accident of birth.

There is no Y-shaped leadership chromosome. And there isn’t an X-shaped leadership chromosome either. Women have the capacity to be as good as any male leader. Or, for that matter, to be equally bad. With the same systemically flawed business model, Lehman Sisters would have failed just as surely as Lehman Brothers did. What makes for a great leader is no more a function of your gender than what makes you a good parent or a good carer.

It’s not down to genetics. It’s down to opportunity.

Weber Shandwick’s recently published Gender Equality in the Executive Ranks research helps organisations understand what they need to provide these opportunities. Our report highlights many of the factors that are pushing and pulling gender equality higher up the board agenda and provides guidance on what organisations can do to become gender forward pioneers.

Worryingly, our research shows that most C-level executives don’t expect gender equality to be achieved in the C-suite until 2030. That’s another 14 years.

Weber Shandwick was rated the most gender equal international PR firm by The Holmes Report, in terms of the number of women on its leadership team, and we actively supported the #HeForShe campaign. Our advice to organisations that want to accelerate the gender equality timetable is to measure the progress you are making and make sure you have a place on the league tables that measure gender equality.

Find a CEO (male or female) to champion this issue. Recognise that talent is a rare commodity and needs to be gender blind. And also recognise that your gender balance is increasing going to be a story for the media, so you better have a good story to tell.

There is a growing body of knowledge, including our research, which can help organisations do something about gender equality. One of the leading academics in this area is Claudia Goldin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Goldin points to two factors that, above all others, would allow us to achieve gender equality sooner than 2030.

The first is to make sure that time flexibility in the workplace does not come at an earning discount. Goldin’s research suggests that more flexible careers like pharmacy already have much greater equality in pay and opportunity for men and women.

The second prescription is to change the length of the school day so that families aren’t forced to make choices that end up reducing the opportunities women have for both earning and promotion.

Goldin’s evidence suggests that the biggest drop in opportunity comes not when a child is born, but when he or she goes to school, and families have to accommodate the brevity of a normal school day into working life. If governments are serious about closing the gender equality gap, this is where they could make the biggest difference.

My little boy was born in 2013. He’ll enter the workforce sometime around 2030.

My sincere hope is that when he joins his first company or organisation, nobody cares about his gender, or for that matter his colour, faith or sexual orientation. And that his success is down to what he brings to that business, not a function of the randomness of genetics.