Why the decline in DEI funding is a slippery slope for workplace gender equality.

Why the decline in DEI funding is a slippery slope for workplace gender equality.

International Women's Day letter from the CEO, Megan Dalla-Camina

The theme for International Women's Day this year, ‘Count Her In: Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’, serves as a crucial call to action for the economic empowerment of women. It underscores the urgency of recommitting to the advancements we've fought hard to achieve.

The recent release of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s private company gender pay data1 revealed gender pay gaps at the majority of Australia’s largest private companies, which is alarming. Add to that the dire statistics around older women and their lack of financial independence - women over 55 make up the most rapidly growing homeless population in Australia - and it’s clear that economic equality between genders still has a long way to go.

In the midst of widespread concern and frustration over persistent gender pay gaps and the scarcity of women in senior positions, International Women’s Day emerges as a pivotal moment to celebrate women's achievements and advocate for a future of greater gender equality.

GOOD INTENTIONS AREN’T ENOUGH.

But even with the best of intentions, many corporates are struggling to maintain their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, even if they are celebrating International Women’s Day with their people this year.

In these challenging economic times, budgets are stretched thin, compelling many companies, both in Australia and globally, to cut back on their DEI investments.

This trend has raised alarms, with Forrester2 forecasting an ‘employee experience recession’, as they predict DEI investments will plummet from 33% in 2022 to a mere 20% in 2024. Such drastic reductions threaten to derail the progress we've made towards equality in our workplaces.

A staggering 74% of women are contemplating leaving their organisations if their careers are not actively supported, and 35% have already switched companies in the past 18 months3.

Reducing investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives significantly increases the risk of attrition. Companies must recognise that investing in employee development is far more cost-effective than the higher expenses incurred from replacing talent that departs due to lack of support.

While these short-term savings might look good on paper, they risk undoing the gender equality progress already made in our workplaces.

RECOGNISING PROGRESS.

And let’s be clear, even though it’s slow and not nearly enough, progress has been made.

While so much media reporting has focused on the negative implications of gender inequality recently, we need to recognise how far we’ve come in the last two decades, and consider the impact of undoing this positive foundational work.

In the last 20 years, we have seen a shift in the visibility of women in leadership. In 2003, just 4.1% of the CEOs of Australia’s ASX 200 were women4, in 2023 that percentage was 10.5%. Slow progress, but progress.

In this period we’ve also seen our first female Prime Minister (Julia Gillard, 2010 - 2013), and a growing trend towards female leadership - 19.4% of CEOs across all companies are women and 32.5% of key management positions are held by women5.

FLEXIBILITY IN THE WORKPLACE.

In recent years, opportunities to work from home and enjoy more flexibility around work have proved beneficial for women, and have been a key factor in women choosing to stay in the workforce.

This is critical for working parents. Recent data from the HILDA survey6 shows the proportion of mothers with children under five working at least partly from home has leapt from 31% to 43%.

So the shift towards enforcing ‘return to office’ policies, coupled with the new ‘Right To Disconnect’ legislation, poses additional challenges, especially for women. These mandates risk undermining the flexible working arrangements that have been critical in supporting women's participation in the workforce.

Current data from the Diversity Council Australia shows 72% of women use one or more forms of flexible work options, (e.g., hybrid work and job share), compared to 57% of men.

A RECIPE FOR DIVERSITY DISASTER.

Reducing investment in DEI programs paired with a reduction in flexibility in the workplace has the potential to slow down, or even reverse, the progress being made towards a more gender equal workforce.

The Women Rising Voice of Women at Work Report in 2023 found that when women aren’t getting what they need from work, and investment is down, there are devastating knock-on effects, with a fifth of non-retirement-aged women surveyed in our report saying they’ve seriously considered leaving the workforce altogether.

It's crucial to remember that DEI programs are designed to correct systemic imbalances, shaping a pipeline that brings more women into leadership roles. These aren't just 'nice-to-haves'; they're the bedrock of equitable progress.

If you’re in the position of having to justify costs for DEI programs, be sure to point out that these programs have long-term benefits to organisations, contributing to improvements in performance, better workplace culture, and overall profitability. There’s a clear line between more women in leadership and business success. WGEA7 found that female top-tier managers add 6.6% to the market value of ASX companies.

SO, WHAT NEXT? PRACTICAL STEPS FORWARD.

If your organisation is feeling pressure around budgets for DEI programs, the good news is there’s plenty you can do to maintain momentum and make a positive commitment this International Women’s Day.

Take a DEI pulse check: Use internal surveys and feedback mechanisms to assess the current state of DEI within your organisation. This can help identify areas of improvement and track the progress of DEI initiatives, to foster trust and build a collective sense of accountability.

Engage male allies: Getting men actively involved in DEI efforts is crucial. Enrol your male managers and leaders in the Women Rising Male Allies program which educates and engages men as allies, focusing on mutual respect, understanding, and support for gender equality initiatives. This can amplify the impact of DEI efforts and promote a more inclusive workplace culture.

Leverage employee resource groups (ERGs): These groups can offer peer support, mentorship, and networking opportunities at minimal cost. Encouraging participation across different levels of the organisation can foster a more inclusive culture and provide valuable insights into improving workplace practices.

Implement mentorship and sponsorship programs: Pairing emerging female leaders with experienced mentors and sponsors within the organisation doesn't require a hefty budget but can significantly impact career development and retention. Focus on creating structured, goal-oriented mentorship programs that address specific career milestones and challenges.

Advocate for better policies: Encourage and support efforts to advocate for policies that promote gender equality, both within and outside the organisation. This could include supporting legislative changes, participating in industry forums, or adopting internal policies that set a standard for gender equality and inclusion.

Provide proven skills development programs: Trusted external programs, like the Women Rising program, can develop your female talent in a cost effective way. Our program is proven to increase retention of women at all levels of your business.

By adopting these strategies, organisations can continue to advance gender equality and support women in the workplace, even in challenging economic times. It's about being creative, leveraging existing resources, and most importantly, staying committed to the cause. Remember, the progress toward a more gender-equal world requires continuous effort and investment, but the benefits—enhanced innovation, improved performance, and a more equitable society—are well worth it.

For more about Women Rising, click here.

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