A balanced and fair gender match in business is good business

Guest post by Bob Grove, CEO of Edelman North Asia. A version of this article originally appeared in Communications Director Magazine.

In many ways I am a ‘typical bloke’. While I am conscious of my own fallibility, I am also alarmed that so many businesses continue to fail to appreciate the differences that they consciously or sub-consciously propagate between genders. Whilst it is now largely agreed that sexism is bad, in its place is a lazy acceptance of the differences between men and women that inhibits the ability of women to reach senior positions in companies. Yet, there is a fundamental truth in business. A balanced and fair gender match in business is good business.

Do the maths

Promoting diversity, and especially gender diversity, is often classified as a moral requirement rather than a business imperative. Whilst the inherent injustice of inequality must be recognised, there are also volumes of studies that illustrate the clear business case for addressing this deficit. The latest Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, for example, notes that companies with top quartile representation of women in executive positions perform better than companies with no women at the top, by some estimates with a 47 percent average return on equity.

However, many markets across our region appear to be oblivious to, or at least unwilling to act upon, this fact. The same World Economic Forum report ranks Japan at 101 of the 145 countries studied in terms of its gender equality in the workplace. China currently sits at 91. Even Singapore, famous for its dynamism and meritocracy, ranks outside of the top 50 at 54. There are numerous groups, like The Male Champions of Change in Australia, which have made admirable progress for the cause. However, there is a great deal of potential in our region still to be unlocked that would, gender fairness aside, be good for business.

From when I graduated to when I was 32 years old I had five female and three male bosses. Since then, I have had 10 male bosses and one can’t help but wonder: where did the women go? According to the World Economic Forum, more women than men are now enrolled in universities in nearly 100 countries, yet women hold the majority of senior roles in only a handful of countries.

In Asia, if you look at the communications and marketing agency world, approximately 75 percent of the graduate intake are female. That ratio holds true for about five years. Therefore, naturally around 75 percent of the best talent is female. Yet at 30-35 years old, the ratio between men and women is about 50:50. Once you get above 40 years old, the ratio of women in senior positions is just 25 percent, a total inverse of the graduating intakes. That means the industry loses two-thirds of its best and brightest talent, and they happen to be female.

There is a female brain drain because organisational expectations are shaped by what are considered to be ‘typical’ male values, an in-built ‘people like me’ bias and a ‘culture of men’.  I am often told it is because “women aren’t as assertive”, “women don’t ask for pay raises and promotions as frequently”, and the most common one I hear, “she wants to spend more time with her family”. This mentality is damaging because it becomes the excuse for why so many organisations accept what is clearly bad business. There are hundreds and hundreds of exceptions and we can applaud them all, but they shouldn’t be exceptions.

Yet, in our region almost every company bemoans talent shortage as an inhibitor to growth. An OECD report published earlier this year suggests that across Asia, more so than in any other region, businesses have experienced difficulties in securing employees with the required skills. In Japan, 81 percent of firms with 10 or more employees reported struggling to find qualified employees. Similarly in India, the figure is 64 percent. I believe that the talent is there – companies, however, often just lose it.

There are three steps that can and should be taken to address this female brain drain.

  1. Vision

Firstly, companies of any scale should have a champion for change in the organisation who is close enough to the CEO to set a vision. Edelman’s vision is to redress the balance in our talent and have females represent 50 percent of our senior leadership team by 2017. We are currently at 44 percent so I think we will more or less get there. The challenge with such a vision is that people can focus too much on diversity and make other compromises on talent that they would not have done otherwise, simply to reach a target. As such, it has to run much deeper than this.

  1. Policy

The second step is all about talent policies. The foundation of these should revolve around two principles: enabling genuine flexible working hours without it being a compromise to career progression, and to have meaningful career paths that are transparent to all. Throughout Edelman in our region we have mandated flexi-time as an option for anyone, male or female. Some men have taken this up, but largely it has been taken up by women. It’s not based on how talented you are or how well you get on with the boss. It’s simply a right for every employee. On transparent career development, success is clearly defined for every level. Everyone in our company knows that they deserve a promotion because they have delivered on critical goals that are visible to all.

There are many other great policies to help women at work, such as maternity rooms at the office and childcare support, but these are largely symbols.  The fundamental talent policy needs to revolve around flexible time and transparent career-mapping to make a material difference.

  1. Culture

Finally, it’s crucial to appreciate that policy will only get you so far. Perhaps the most difficult barrier is culture. I know from experience that leadership teams love setting a vision, defining the strategy and putting tools, policies and channels in place to communicate with their teams. What they find a lot harder is to actually change their own behaviour or the behaviour of the teams around them. Cultural shift is about changing things at a micro level. It requires intense scrutiny of leadership and their behaviours. It is rooted in meaningful values. It has consequences of reward and tangible disapproval. It is ultimately based on something far deeper than a vision, policy or a nod to some documented values that no-one ever really remembers. It is a way of being.


There is now so much empirical evidence illustrating the better performance of companies with senior women well represented in leadership teams, that denying it is akin to refusing to accept other fundamental truths such as climate change. By setting a clear vision, addressing policy, and being determined about embracing a different culture, companies will enable more women to climb through the ranks and organically become members of leadership teams. In an industry with such a high percentage of women, we all have a responsibility to ensure that a fair share earn their place at the very top. Ignoring this obligation isn’t just unfair, it’s bad business.

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