RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK –  A new survey from IBM doesn’t offer much positive news for women in business as the world observes “Women’s Day.” But there are companies that Big Blue calls “First Movers” where an aggressive approach to diversity is delivering bottom-line results.

The global survey of 2,300 executives conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value and Oxford Economics found that women hold a mere 18 percent of senior leadership posts.

Yet the survey also identified companies branded as “First Movers” have embraced diversity and are enjoying practical benefits, including profitability and revenue growth.

The First Movers “are serious about achieving gender equality in leadership,” IBM says, becoming firms that “unlock value by creating an inclusive corporate culture where all qualified employees have equal opportunities for advancement.”

Unfortunately for women, these companies make up 12 percent of the survey sample.

But a chart shows how these firms are benefiting:

IBM graphic

IBM graphic

These firms share three key characteristics, according to IBM:

  1. They are serious about gender inclusion – All (100 percent) have made advancing women into leadership roles a formal business priority. By comparison, only nine percent of other organizations have the same focus.
  2. They are motivated by the promise of financial improvement – All (100 percent) are sold on the idea that gender-inclusive organizations are more successful financially, whereas only 38 percent of other organizations agree.
  3. They acknowledge and embrace their responsibility to take action – All (100 percent) agree that businesses need to continue making changes to achieve gender equality in the workplace. While the majority of other organizations in our survey also agree, 29 percent more First Movers are passionate about taking action than other organizations.

“The past year has heightened the world’s focus on diversity, and the business benefits of inclusive teams are now well-documented,” said Michelle Peluso, Senior Vice President of Digital Sales and Chief Marketing Officer for IBM. “The opportunity now is to move from inclusion being interesting to being imperative – just like we treat other top business priorities.”

“What we have learned from First Movers is the importance of setting measurable goals and defining a systematic approach to inclusion across the organization. This means everything from recruiting to rewarding, developing, retaining and promoting women. And, then, we must ourselves be accountable to meet these goals,” she added.

Factors: Why not more women in top roles?

IBM says there are three reasons why women don’t hold more leadership roles:

  • Organizations are not sold on the business value. 79 percent of respondents indicated that they have not formally prioritized fostering gender equality in leadership within their organizations, even though ample evidence correlates gender equity with improved financial success and competitive advantage.
  • Men underestimate the magnitude of gender bias in their workplaces. 65 percent of male executives reported it is just as likely they would have been promoted to a top leadership role even if they had been women, despite the low numbers of women that currently hold those roles.
  • Few organizations display a sense of urgency or ownership about this issue. Organizations are over-relying on “good intentions” and applying a laissez-faire approach to diversity, rather than applying the disciplined focus on operational execution they apply to other aspects of organizational performance.
“Imperatives” to drive change

To encourage more gender equality, the study recommends what it calls “imperatives:”

  • Make gender equality in leadership a business priority. Just as you would for any other formal business priority, legitimize your commitment by including the advancement of women in your organization’s formal business plan with key performance indicators (KPIs), budget, and assigned resources. Select one or more senior executives to lead the charge.
  • Create a culture of inclusion. Include gender equality in your organization’s strategic mission statement, as the vast majority of First Movers do.
  • Create programs that support more flexible work arrangements and formal sponsorship initiatives.
  • Make leadership accountable for gender equality results. It is the senior executives who truly have the power to make elevating women to leadership positions a key strategic business priority. Further, this is where the board of directors can play a role as part of their fiduciary responsibilities to grow the business.

You can read the full study online.