Gender mainstreaming – Doing what’s best for the business
The tangible benefits of gender mainstreaming can most easily be realised by adopting a range of best practices around the issue.
It is clear that South African businesses are only now beginning to realise that there is a solid business case for the private sector to embrace gender mainstreaming within the fabric of the organisation.
Amongst the tangible benefits that have been recognised, says Colleen Larsen, CEO of Business Engage, the local organisation that is at the forefront of gender mainstreaming, are positive results for the bottom line, access to the widest talent pool, the ability to be more responsive to the market and achieving better corporate governance.
At the same time, she cautions, there are also accepted barriers to success. These barriers are numerous and not easy to resolve, including as they do issues such as unconscious bias, double burden, lack of support structures and differences in approach to competition.
“Although any approach to gender mainstreaming cannot adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, Business Engage has developed a series of best practices that the South African private sector can utilise when implementing such an initiative. These best practices are the result of over two years research into international trends and the study of more than two hundred global academic papers, commercial reports, blogs and general articles, all combined with current local knowledge,” she says.
Key best practices
Some of the key best practices outlined by Business Engage include the fact that businesses must recognise that whilst legislation exists to overcome certain concerns around gender inequality and discrimination, it may be too narrow a policy tool to address the under-representation of women in the middle and top structures.
“To succeed with gender mainstreaming, an organisations must ensure that it fully understands the global business case. Implementing it based purely on the need to satisfy legislation will probably be detrimental to the business.”
She adds that while one shouldn’t try to make wholesale changes in a short period of time, the successful implementation of gender mainstreaming can be viewed as a source of competitive advantage. “After all, the deliberation around the topic has shifted from a question of equality and being ‘the right thing to do’, to it being a matter of using all the available talent in an effort to achieve greater performance.”
Other best practices highlighted by Larsen include assessing the risk to the entity of the short and long term effect of gender mainstreaming. Such an assessment should consider both the legal, ethical and social risks of not embracing it and the risks to the business of any real or perceived lowering of standards, expertise and skill sets in the short to medium term.
“Companies should also seek to consider the suitability of women from outside the corporate mainstream for non-executive positions. These could include professionals, successful entrepreneurs, non-profit executives, and academics. Further, these entities should run mentorship programmes for women which are suitable for the environment in which they work, while also ensuring that women get critical experiences in core positions.”
Other steps to consider would include analysing any gender pay gaps that exist and taking steps to eradicate these; prohibiting all forms of gender-based violence in the workplace, including verbal, physical and sexual harassment; providing Unconscious Bias training to staff and external consultants who recruit or internally promote employees; and implementing policies to change workplace culture to be more gender inclusive, while also embedding gender diversity strategies within all key processes.
“You could sum up a lot of the process simply by saying that when a business is looking to fill positions, it should widen the net to encompass more than the traditional male-focused criteria. In effect, asking ‘why not’, as opposed to ‘why’.”
“In order to tap into the full talent pool, businesses that are successful at gender mainstreaming will work to create the conditions, cultures and mind-sets that will enable both men and women to thrive. After all, true gender mainstreaming is not simply about recognising that women should fit into the economy, it is about realising that they should play an equal role in shaping it,” concludes Larsen.