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Gender equity is good for society and business – you can bank on it

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

As a human resources and investment consultant, I often come across executives – male and female – who express good intentions yet fail to actively pursue gender equity in the workplace. They often say they "support" gender equity, but can't make a case for it as a top business priority.

Yes, gender equity is the right thing to do. It's fair. It's good for society. But did you know that it also pays?

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In 2013, the International Monetary Fund released a paper, "Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity," that provided empirical evidence that companies and economies can make even greater gains when they employ a representative proportion of women. My employer, Mercer, went a step further and found that gender equity worldwide can lead to a $12-trillion increase in global GDP ($3.1-trillion in North America and Oceania).

Our research found that while men bring important skills to a workplace, an equal proportion of women would introduce different – and just as effective – skills, such as those involving team and people building, flexibility, problem solving, and emotional intelligence. If pooled together, an organization (and society) would see a surge in creativity, innovation and growth.

I see this every day in the field. Some years ago, I was afforded a tremendous opportunity to grow into a specialty field (investments) which was, and somewhat remains, a rarity for females. Contrary to the industry, however, we have built a truly diverse team that continues to amaze me with unique insights, creativity and results. And yes, we are seeing the financial gains.

Current state of gender equity

In recent years women have made modest gains in top positions, with female representation at the executive level reaching 22 per cent in North America in 2015. Though our projections show this increasing to 36 per cent in 2025 based on current talent flows, this scenario could prove overly optimistic if companies pull back from their efforts or if they fail to attract, engage and promote sufficient numbers of female workers at entry and mid-levels.

So, how do organizations implement a sustaining gender equity program? I have outlined a starting point – the Six Ps of Effective Gender Strategy – to help your organization build a foundation for change … and potential financial returns:

Passionate leadership: Real change must begin at the top. Our research shows that only 57 per cent of senior executives and 39 per cent of middle managers are engaged in diversity and inclusion efforts. Organizations can provide a gentle push by ensuring inclusion is a core competency in executive selection; disclosing gender pay gaps and retention rates; and linking compensation with equity results.

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Personal commitment: Human resources alone cannot drive change. This must come not only from committed leaders but from all levels of the organization. Men also play an important role, though we found that only 38 per cent are engaged in diversity activities.

Perseverance: For organizations to reach 50/50 gender equity, and reap the benefits that come from this, policies, practices and procedures must be ingrained in the organizational fabric. Specific solutions can be found by: 1) prioritizing programs that have the most impact on enterprise-wide buy-in; 2) conducting a deep dive into your data to gauge what works and what does not; and 3) investigating best practices that have been proven successful in organizational engagement. Ad hoc or short-term solutions or campaigns will not solve the problem.

Proof: Employers must apply rigorous workforce analytics, internally and externally, to determine the proportion of women available and those entering the organization at various levels, their rates of promotion and their propensity to leave. When charted, this can clearly paint a picture of the smooth flow (or bottlenecks) of talent through an organization.

Process: Perhaps the most significant driver of progress for women is strong, regular pay equity processes. Our research shows that having more women in profit and loss (P&L) roles is strongly linked to greater gender diversity throughout the organization. In Canada, women have been promoted into leadership positions at record numbers, however, only 22 per cent of Canadian organizations say women are as represented in P&L roles as in functional roles.

Programs: What drives men to succeed might not drive women. The same goes for health and wellness programs, most of which were developed when men held a strong majority over women in the workplace, and reflected a uniquely male approach. Statistically speaking, this matters to women, who have shown that healthcare is a strong determinant of where they work and how engaged they are.

Female workers have made some inroads in recent years, partly due to increased scrutiny from the media and public. But, there is much room for improvement. The 2015 World Economic Forum's "Global Gender Gap Report" places Canada's gender equality at 30th globally and wage equality at 80th. I believe that companies can drive a new wave of creativity and growth by building a free-flowing pipeline of female talent through all levels, which one day will be felt at participating organizations and throughout society.

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Jaqui Parchment (Jaqui.Parchment@mercer.com) is a senior partner and head of Investments at Mercer, a global human resources consulting company. She is a frequent speaker on gender equity and recently co-led Mercer's " When Women Thrive " global research study and platform.

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