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Meera Anand



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Women’s career progression: how to address the barriers and accelerate progress


Gender pay gaps are getting increased media attention. But the issue is not just a pay one – it’s one of women’s representation at all levels in an organisation and their career journey.

Many companies are struggling to affect sustainable change with regards to women’s progression, even with multiple well-intended initiatives aimed at supporting women moving up the organisation hierarchy. Are they doing something wrong, or maybe missing a trick?

Current attention is being given to workplace diversity, and this provides the perfect opportunity for committed organisations to seize the moment and overhaul their approach in order to truly change the situation, and see real return on their diversity investments.

Mercer’s latest report “Accelerating for Impact: 2018 Gender Inflection Point“, examines the underlying drivers of the advancement of women and the practical steps organisations can take to address the barriers to progression.

The report builds on four years of comprehensive research into the levers for advancing women at work. When applied in practice within various organisations, the model has seen powerful results in terms of pay gaps and women’s representation in senior leadership.

Women at the top: how do we get them there?

The solution isn’t in itself complicated, but will take a focused and sustained effort to work. We know that this focus is the only way to ensure that the time and money being spent on diversity actually has an impact on women’s representation at the top. 

There are three core steps:

1. Get proof

Organisations must collect evidence of what is happening to female talent. Without this, companies are spending money on initiatives simply on the hunch that they will work.

The temptation is to bring in lots of new initiatives, but we know that this does not produce sustained change.

You need insights on what the actual barriers and accelerators are in your unique organisation. You can do this using workforce analytics, regardless of how good or bad your employee data records are.

2. Engage leaders

Addressing diversity issues can’t just be an HR activity or pushed down to a women’s business resource group. Although these groups have real value in supporting action, it is only when leaders and stakeholders throughout the organisation are passionate and committed to making an impact that things will actually change.

3. Take action

The temptation is to bring in lots of new initiatives, but we know that this does not produce sustained change. Mercer’s research shows that organisations need to review all of the processes and activities that affect careers and examine them for structural bias. They need to work collectively to support women’s career progression. This includes:

  • Addressing real gender pay differentials

  • De-biasing how performance is assessed and against what measures

  • Reviewing role requirements to see if they are still relevant and free of potentially biased language

  • Moving beyond flexible working to embrace organisation-wide agile working

  • Reviewing benefits with an eye to inclusion.

You need to look at how each of these work throughout someone’s career – it isn’t just about part-time working arrangements for working mothers.

Once you go through these steps, you will start to identify the barriers to inclusion. You will also start to find some quick wins, which will help build momentum. It will take a little time, what we call “go slow to go fast”, but it will put you in a better position to achieve meaningful and sustainable results.

Grounding your approach in science 

Capabilities and techniques in workforce analytics are improving continuously, and there are a number of approaches that can support gathering insights into how to sustainably support the progression of women:

  • Look at the labour flows (hiring, promotions, exits) of women throughout the organisation, and try to uncover insights into potential barriers to progression

  • Project these labour flows forward to understand both what female representation will look like if you “do nothing” and the levers that will have the most significant impact on this picture. The initiatives you put in place can then specifically address these levers, rather than take a blanket approach.

  • Map alternate career paths that would support women with progression through the organisation, avoiding roles that are for example likely to be disrupted through technology/automation or ones that may require international relocation.

  • Uncover which roles are the best catalysts for career advancement, and ensures there is no bias or barriers for women taking these roles.

Acting on insight-driven decisions

The actions you should take to advance the progression of women will be unique to your organisation, and should be based on the evidence and insights uncovered through analytics.

Organisations are using these insights to design solutions and initiatives that are innovative, engaging and have the highest chance of success based on their particular circumstances. Here are just a couple of examples.

Technology is significantly shaping how organisations are reducing unconscious bias through the recruitment process.

Adopting personalised benefits communications by targeting women at different life stages with communications on how to best use the health, pension, financial support and wellness benefits. While it is relatively low cost it can significantly impact engagement (and loyalty) of women to the organisation.

Technology is significantly shaping how organisations are reducing unconscious bias through the recruitment process.

For example, you can use tools to identify language used through job adverts that may deter women applicants. Or try predictive hiring platforms, which use gamification to collect scientific, quantitative and unbiased data on a user’s cognitive, social and emotional traits and behaviour as a way to make the hiring decision.

Where to start

Knowing how to get started is often the hardest part. It is important to begin by asking yourself what is it you want to achieve and how you are going to do that. If you want sustainable change, you need a road map.

Spending the time thinking this through before you dive into the data will save you significant time in the long run, and give you more robust insights.

Remember to go slow to go fast, and you will get the insights you need to steer your focus on the right actions that achieve real sustainable results.  

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Meera Anand


Read more from Meera Anand

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