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Five years ago, the female consultants at BTS USA were a woeful 16 per cent of its total team, despite the fact North American business schools were churning out talented female graduates aiming for that field. Even clients of the strategy and leadership development firm were remarking on the fact they rarely saw female consultants. A decision was made to seek gender parity and these days female representation has just nudged above 50 per cent, achieving the goal.

In some ways, the solution was simple. Once the issue was addressed, four interrelated changes helped to turn the tide – changes that most companies wanting to also move toward parity can easily follow. The results were powerful, not just in prettier numbers, but in the firm’s performance. “A diverse team leads to more diverse ideas and breakthrough performance,” Jessica Parisi, president and chief executive of the 275-person American unit of the Swedish-based BTS, says in an interview.

The first key decision was to make business leaders own the gender metrics and responsibility for improvement rather than HR or some other staff function. “People who expect the chief diversity officer will solve the diversity issue never get anywhere,” she notes. This was, as you might expect, not all that comfortable for those business leaders told they would now be judged not just on profit but also the male-female ratio of their team, given this didn’t seem like something that would change much in a few quarters or even a few years. But it forced them to focus on the issue. And the numbers started to get better in about six months, with the next wave of recruitment.

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That’s where the second key factor comes in: The recruitment team was required to have an equal number of female and male candidates in the pipeline – equal being defined flexibly as a 40/60 ratio either way. “The recruitment team felt this would be tough as it had not happened naturally in the past. It just took more discipline and focus,” she says. The company didn’t have to switch campuses for recruiting, based on gender enrolment at universities, but only had to seek more female candidates at the ones they visited and provide a more female-friendly face to those interviewed. The firm’s female consultants also reached out in their own networks to try to find top candidates, again making this more of a broad-based business function than an HR responsibility, and turning recruitment into a continual rather than seasonal process.

Vital to the effort was ensuring that female candidates could see people like them in their encounters with the company. In particular, making sure at least one and preferably two female consultants were present for interviews, whereas in the past the heavily male consulting force meant men were more likely to be the interviewers.

"If women candidates could talk with other women or even just see more women in the interview rooms, they would more naturally feel like they would belong at BTS,” Ms. Parisi wrote on Workforce.com. They could also ask questions about the environment they might be entering – notably, if they were to have a child, how the company would handle the situation. This meant significantly more recruiting work for the female consultants since there were fewer of them, but the company responded by reducing their billable hours responsibility.

The fourth key factor was attacking unconscious bias in their selection process. A lot of the questions has been open-ended and often geared to whether the person would fit in, as in this factor for judging candidates: “Would I want to hang out with this person in an airport?” Instead, structured questions were introduced and candidates were put into simulated work situations, facing critical consulting moments, judged on a point system against the factors needed to succeed in the work.

Beyond that, the unit became much more vigorous about talking about the work-life flexibility their Swedish heritage traditionally allowed. And it invested in that flexibility and retaining women. If a woman came back from maternity leave but was still pumping breast milk, they would change the consulting team from two to three people so the woman could handle that responsibility with some privacy and the client wasn’t short-changed. “It was our policy to over-staff. Pumping lasts for months. This person will be with us for years,” Ms. Parisi says.

Nothing they did was rocket science. It just took goals, determination and a rigorous examination of existing practices with a willingness to change. It’s open to any company that lacks gender parity and wants to improve.

Cannonballs

  • First there was Kraft and Heinz. Now there is Kraft Heinz; more accurately, a struggling Kraft Heinz, facing new consumer tastes. The apparent solution being considered is to sell some brands to improve margins and then merge with another food maker, so presumably the larger entity can struggle again. The success rate of mergers is low; why are they still a prominent instinct in the executive suite?
  • A survey found that 23 per cent of Americans who work at companies with more than 500 employees are unsure of the name of their CEO.
  • The five Is of leadership, according to Canadian blogger and federal government economist Jim Taggart, are integrity, insight, innovation, initiative, and intelligence.

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