Policy isn’t enough to close the gender gap in leadership

June 23, 2016

The headline was stark: “Financial Services Industry Lagging in Unleashing Female Leadership Potential.” This summed up the findings of Oliver Wyman’s second Women in Financial Services report released last week, echoing findings from other reports such as McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace and Mercer’s When Women Thrive, about the slow, if not stalling progress to gender equity in corporate leadership.

While many may shrug and say that this is not surprising, the fact is over the past few years plenty of effort has been dedicated to advancing women in leadership across all industries, not just financial services. Think of all the campaigns (Lean in; He for She), hiring of Chief Diversity Officers etc… if effort equated one for one with results, we should be close to parity by now. But we’re not.

2016-06-23 OW Women In FS 2016 Report CoverDespite the variation in region and culture of the institutions analyzed, there are a number of similarities in what is impeding women’s advancement. Oliver Wyman’s findings indicate that “many women face a mid-career conflict” and “the cost of a career, especially the sacrifices in their personal lives, seem too great in relation to the uncertain benefits of pressing on.” What this tells me is that there are identifiable aspects to this issue that can be addressed, in part, by leading practices such as sponsorship, inclusive talent management practices, and flexible work.  But we know from experience that that is not enough.

The report’s authors suggest that a “mix of bolder structural solutions and more profound underlying cultural change” is needed. It’s the word “mix” that I want to emphasize here. Programs and policies are vital, but if the culture isn’t truly inclusive, they won’t mean much.  Even with the C-suite passionately arguing for diversity within an organization, if there are few institutional supports in place, those arguments will remain what they are… mere words. A truly inclusive culture is the glue that holds all these policies and practices together in a cohesive movement.

So how can structure and culture can work together?  As Joan Williams has noted in her work with the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California (Hastings), workdays in the U.S. are generally based on historical divisions of labor where, to give a simple example, women were caretakers and men were breadwinners.  Those norms are changing but the structure of the workday has not changed with them, nor has the outdated notion that flexible work is an accommodation specifically for women.  This can force a choice, not just for women, but for men too. To that end, a number of companies have implemented “results only” workplaces, wherein employees can work from anywhere at any time provided they meet their performance objectives.  This takes gender out of the equation.  Another approach from Women’s World Banking’s network member Al Majmoua is the creation of a varied work schedule with a culture that very explicitly values flexibility for all.

Al Majmoua staff

Of course, every institution is different. I think what’s slowed this work down is that individual companies have not found the right recipe for their particular business and for the environment they operate in. That’s why programs like Women’s World Banking’s Organizational Gender Assessment (OGA) are critical. We created the OGA in response to a decreasing trend of women in senior management and governance within our global network of financial institutions. With rigor as that applied by the Oliver Wyman team to their report, Women’s World Banking dives deep into the operations and culture of financial institutions to understand the systemic dynamics that may preclude women from advancing. We gather and analyze data to diagnose the obstacles, challenges and opportunities faced by women staff members and leaders. By uncovering the interplay of factors that are unique to an institution and its culture, we are able to see a holistic picture and recommend strategies to create an enabling and inclusive work environment for all staff members to thrive.

Ultimately, what this report reveals is that enthusiasm for promoting gender-diverse leadership is high, but the reality is, efforts have not achieved the desired results. To effectively unleash female leadership potential, to resolve the (seemingly universal) “midcareer conflict” faced by women, changes must work in tandem if they are to work. It is a synergy between changes in structure and culture that has the power to effectively close the gap in gender parity.

I encourage everyone, not just those in the gender diversity space to read this report, and reflect on what it means.


Women’s World Banking co-hosted the roundtable, “Women in Emerging Markets and Financial Inclusion” in London a few months ago, which contributed to the production of this report.

See our CEO’s article co-authored with CKCO Karen Miller and Oliver Wyman’s Rupal Kantaria and Chaitra Chandrasekhar on p 45 of the report “Women’s Financial Inclusion: How to Get a Billion New Customers