Learning Hub
Ben Davern

Ben Davern

14th Aug 2023

Related Articles

5 Priorities for Becoming a More Strategic People Manager
4 Things High Achievers Do Differently: Dr Ruth Gotian

Radical Strategies for Promoting Women in Leadership

How to overcome resistance to gender diversity measures and gain stakeholder buy-in

It’s easy to get distracted by numbers and quotas with gender equality in the workplace. Take an organisation with an exact 50/50 split between male and female employees. On the surface, this organisation might appear to be a progressive model, but a deeper dive into the data often tells a different story.

For example, it’s common for organisations to have gender parity or close to it in entry-level roles, only to see the percentage of female employees decrease when getting closer to the top of the organisation. According to the McKinsey/Lean In Women in the Workplace study, only 38% of managers are female, followed by 33% of directors, 28% of senior vice presidents, and 21% of C-suite executives.

Ireland has made efforts to prioritise gender balance at board level in recent years (42% of ISEQ 20 listed companies now have more than three female board members) only 13% of CEOs in Ireland of large enterprises are women. Likewise only 14% of board chairpersons and 30% of senior executives are female. Thirteen per cent of Irish companies have all-male boards.

The McKinsey/Lean In study suggests this drop-off of women is primarily driven by gender disparities in promotion rates, not gender differences in hiring or retention.

Thus career advancement seems to be where most companies should target. Of course, efforts to diversify the talent pipeline remain important, but if companies can’t develop and promote the women they hire, it will be difficult to achieve gender parity at the senior level.

The Harvard Business Review puts forward the Gender Proportionality Principle (GPP) as a solution to increasing gender balance throughoutorganisations.

The GPP stipulates that a given level of an organisation should aim to reflect the gender composition of the level immediately below it. For example, if women make up 38% of managers in the organisation, but 50% of entry-level employees are female, then the organisation should set a goal to reach 50% female managers, while the goal for director-level should be set at 38% women.

The authors suggest that leaders should be forced to “comply or explain” and provide a justification for instances where deviation from the gender proportionality in recruitment decisions occurs.

They also suggest companies should introduce “scorecards” that document each manager’s historical hiring, promotion, and retention track record compared to the available pool over a suitable timeframe, depending on the number of promotions the manager has overseen.

Number of hours worked

While the GPP may be effective (the authors claim 70% of departments in one organisation saw an increase in gender proportionate promotions), it also gives rise to some objections: For instance, that hiring and promotional practices should be based on skill and competence rather than an enforced quota, while equality (gender or otherwise) should be about achieving equality of opportunity, not outcome. While these counterarguments are oversimplifications, expect to hear the tired line that “men just work harder than women” trotted out, which, when broken down, usually amounts to men’s (supposed) willingness to work longer hours in the office.

Flipping this laughable viewpoint on its head actually raises an interesting point around changing workplace culture. With the rise of hybrid and remote working, the amount of time employees spend in the office has never been less important. But presenteeism and bias towards office-based workers (or those attending non-obligatory after-hours social events) remain a problem.

Project-based models

One proposed solution to this problem is a shift towards project-based working models. In the world of project-based work, employees are evaluated on their performance after each project — rendering moot how many hours they’ve clocked. Assessing employee performance regularly should enable companies to make more informed staffing and resourcing decisions (including promotions) after the conclusion of each project, removing gender-based bias as the only performance criteria is performance itself.

Realistically, while a shift towards project-based work models might be a step in a more agile direction, with more emphasis on output, it would be simplistic to consider it the solution to combating workplace inequality. For example, a sole female on an all-male team will likely run into the same obstacles as in a traditional working model (not feeling included, voice not being heard, etc). Plus overcoming unconscious bias (such as gravitating towards those we feel most similar to) remains a challenge unless we enforce quota-orientated measures like the GPP.

But this brings us back to square one. Beyond PR and branding reasons, how do we get organisations to implement such measures?

Considering 83% of CEOs have faced resistance from stakeholders and shareholders regarding vital environmental, social, and corporate governance investment, arguing from an ethical and moral perspective for gender diversity/equality seems a dead end to gaining vital buy-in from senior leaders — especially when those leaders may be putting their roles at risk.

Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation and frame gender diversity as a means to gaining a competitive advantage.

Research from the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that firms with higher gender diversity at the senior level are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide higher-quality customer experiences, along with being more open to change and tending to focus on research and development rather than mergers and acquisitions.

Women don’t just bring new perspectives when they join the C-suite; they shift how the C-suite thinks about innovation, enabling organisations to consider a greater variety of value-creating strategies. Compare this to a homogenous team which shares a similar intellectual outlook and approach to problem-solving — in effect putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.


On a bright note, a growing number of companies are committed to supporting female employees and levelling the playing field. The 30% Club, which aims to deliver at least 30% female representation at board level and within executive leadership, now boasts more than 1,000 board chairs and CEOs across 20 countries.

Sharing some internal data, demand for the Irish Management Institute’s ‘Taking the Lead — Women in Leadership’ programme has increased threefold in recent years, which we take as a sign of how committed many organisations are to undergoing transformational change.

From a humanitarian perspective, achieving gender equality in the workplace is an end-in-itself. But reaching that point and gaining senior stakeholder buy-in may require a new framework, one which presents gender equality not as the ultimate end, but as a means to driving long-term growth and creating meaningful business value.

The next Taking the Lead – Women in Leadership programme takes place in a hybrid format, allowing you to attend virtually. Programme beings 4 October. 

Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

Did you enjoy reading this article?