Smart businesses put women at the top

The smartest businesses today are placing more women in management positions—not simply because it's the right thing to do, but because they know this strategy will attract customers, foster innovation and drive profits.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo
Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo

As International Women's Day on March 8th approaches, I think back to how, when I was growing up in India, the greatest ambition for me and all young women was to end up in a good arranged marriage. In fact, even when I traveled to the United States and entered Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, I still believed I would ultimately move back to India following graduate school and get married. However, I was struck by the social impact that race and ethnicity had on people's lives and set out on a career path to help sustain cultural change.

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I was lucky enough to choose a direction that ultimately led to a top management position at a multinational company, Sodexo (though I also married and had two daughters of my own). I am grateful today to find myself in a company that prioritizes diversity and putting women in leadership roles.

As countless studies demonstrate, women are not the only ones to benefit from this progressive stance: the company made an equally shrewd investment decision by hiring and promoting women like me.

A growing body of research shows that gender balance in the workplace boosts the bottom line and a range of other performance measures. For example, a 2013 McKinsey report found that companies with a top quartile representation of women executives had an average 47 percent higher return on equity.

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In the developed world, women now outnumber men in university attendance and graduation rates, reflecting how their aspirations have evolved over the decades. And when more women earn a living it leads to greater prosperity for all, since they tend to invest a larger portion of household income into their children's education.

Research predicts significant macroeconomic gains if only women could fulfill their labor-market potential. The International Labor Organization suggests women's work could be the biggest factor in reducing poverty in developing countries.

As the world's 18th largest employer, Sodexo is a revealing testing ground for observing the impact of gender balance on performance in the workplace — especially since 43 percent of Sodexo's Executive Committee are women, and the company launched programs to foster women's access to leadership roles and promote gender parity starting a decade ago. Early this year, Sodexo finalized its own Gender Balance Study, with data gathered from 52,000 Sodexo managers working in over 100 entities across our global footprint. The study was designed to determine whether gender-balanced entities – defined as having 40 percent to 60 percent women in management — had better results on a range of KPI's than those entities without gender balance in management.

The study's results showed an impressive correlation between gender balance and performance indicators across every category, including employee engagement, brand image, client and consumer satisfaction, and growth and profits.

For instance, entities with gender-balanced management saw an average increase of 4 percent in employee engagement compared to only 1 percent for the others. Client-retention rates showed similar patterns. At the same time, customer satisfaction rises along with the percentage of women working onsite, proving how important it is for a company's staff to mirror the diversity of its customers.

Better employee engagement and consumer satisfaction both translate into real and sustainable growth. Over the past three consecutive years, entities with gender-balanced management were 12 percent more likely to record consistent organic growth; and 21 percent more likely to show an increase in gross profit.

These are serious numbers. And yet, my own personal experience remains all too rare. Today, women continue to take a back seat in the labor markets of every country, especially at upper levels. While women's average wages have risen, they still earn less than their male counterparts. They represent fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

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The situation is not evolving quickly enough, either — the consulting firm Mercer forecasts that, at the current pace, women will still hold only one-third of executive positions a decade from now, and a mere one-quarter in North America.

Entrenched attitudes, habits and unconscious biases must change. Organizations have to focus on developing and advancing female talent, and business leaders must play an active role in promoting diversity and fostering an inclusive culture where all talent can succeed. They must also be attentive to women's more latticed careers, allowing them to "off ramp" and supporting them when they choose to "on ramp."

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Ultimately, it is in our own best interests. Studies prove beyond a doubt that gender equity is better for business, better for society, better for GDP. Treating women as equals and allowing them to flourish will benefit every one of us, male and female alike.

Commentary by Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global chief diversity officer at Sodexo, a Paris-based firm that specializes in food services and facilities management.

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