Accenture: What does a culture of equality really look like?

Accenture is on a mission to advance workplace equality and achieve a gender-balanced workforce by 2025. Crucial to its ambitions is understanding gender equality in the workplace.

No employer consciously sets out to create or perpetuate inequality based on gender, ethnicity or any other factor. Yet inequality persists across much of today’s workforce despite a drive for equality, suggests research carried out by Accenture.

Take the way that girls and boys perform at school. Across the board, it’s largely the case that girls are outperforming boys at many levels of educational achievement. Yet when they move into the workplace, a significant reversal takes place.

A woman entering work from university in the UK today will be 92 years old before the pay gap closes. Within five years of starting work, she is likely to be earning 6% less than men who entered the workforce at the same time, and those male peers are 22% more likely to reach manager level by the age of 30. 

The culture of gender equality

Accenture wanted to understand why girls – who do so well at school – don’t thrive at work and in particular to understand the role of workplace culture.

Melinda Gates touched on the issue when she noted: “We are sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads”.

Nine out of ten companies started since 1900 have had all-male founders – and that has barely changed in the intervening 120 years. The century-old workplace culture that women are joining has been built by and for men; and it’s not working for women.

Evidence-based research

The reasons for women’s lack of advancement are, of course, wide-ranging and complex. Accenture set out to understand what factors were driving advancement in workplaces and found that the culture of a business had the greatest impact.

To carry out this research, Accenture combined data from a survey of 22,000 women and men, alongside published information on employment and pay, and revealed workplace environments where women are thriving today.

In these companies, Accenture found that women are much more likely to love their jobs, be happy about their career progression and looking to move into the next level of management and into senior leadership roles. And the difference goes beyond how they feel: women in these environments are four times more likely than their peers to progress to senior management positions and beyond.

And the most influential factor? Culture.

In the research, Accenture looked at more than 200 factors that are thought to influence the likelihood of a woman advancing in her organisation. These range from whether or not she has children to access to a mentor or whether someone moves to a new organisation or role to further her career. By analysing these 200-plus factors, Accenture was able to identify 40 that had an influence on women’s success and within those 40, it identified 14 that had a particularly strong impact.

These factors shape a company’s culture, and they fall into three categories:

  • bold leadership,
  • comprehensive action,
  • empowering environment

Companies show bold leadership when they set clear diversity targets and share them transparently beyond the organisation. In these companies, gender diversity is a priority for management and the organisation clearly states its gender equality goals and policies.

Comprehensive action describes the practices and policies that companies pursue which are family-friendly, offer support to all employees regardless of gender and are proven to be effective. For example, Accenture’s research shows that offering maternity leave alone can be counterproductive when it comes to supporting women, tacitly assigning the childcare role to them. Instead, offering parental leave – and encouraging men to take it –  supports the development of a more equal culture.

Finally, Accenture found that an empowering environment is a leading indicator of a culture that’s favourable to women’s success. Empowerment comes in the form of enabling people to take greater control of their lives, for example, through remote and home working to enable some flexibility. In addition, no-one is made to feel that they have to hide or disguise their true identity, people are encouraged to express themselves and their work is supported through the development of new skills.

When workplaces have more of these qualities women are more able to develop and progress their careers. They can fulfil their potential, which has clear benefits for the business as well as each individual. But perhaps the most powerful finding was that developing more inclusive cultures helps everyone to thrive.

Accenture’s research also showed that in these environments it’s not just women who thrive; everyone does, LGBT+ employees were three times as likely to reach senior management positions, and men were twice as likely to advance. By tackling a culture of inequality, it turns out that there are no losers. This is not a zero-sum game. Everyone benefits when everyone is equally valued and given the opportunity to thrive.
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