Gender parity: it's not rocket science

Gender imbalance in your organisation? Take simple, pragmatic steps now to make change happen

Susanna Kempe_974x296


  • Gender parity is good for the bottom line. The data shows it makes business sense.
  • The time for excuses and explanations is past. Leaders need to stop talking and start acting.
  • The Laidlaw Foundation has partnered with LBS to offer scholarships to equip women with the tools for success.

“Treat your people equally and your business will make more money. It isn’t rocket science.” Susanna Kempe is big on straight-talking, particularly when it comes to gender parity in the workplace. For the CEO of the Laidlaw Foundation, the facts speak for themselves.

“If you rank the Fortune 500 companies by the number of women on their boards, those that have the most women are in the top quartile. Or if you look at investments made by companies led by women, they generate 10% more in terms of cumulative value,” says Kempe.

“Every single data point proves it and yet people still don’t do it. It’s maddening.”

Kempe’s frustration is apparent, but she is also a big advocate for actions speaking louder than words when it comes to advancing inclusion in business. That has seen the establishment of the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund, which last year awarded London Business School £3.69m to continue its work promoting social change in education.

The fund will support the School’s vision for equal representation across its degree programmes, but for Kempe the responsibility for levelling the playing field for women in business lies with every organisation: “We all have a role to play, but clearly for some people their unconscious bias is so embedded that changing it can prove a challenge. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I think it’s really simple.”

The belief that businesses thrive when gender equality is the norm is something that has been informed by Kempe’s own experience. She counts herself lucky that, throughout her career, she has been part of or led diverse teams of colleagues who were promoted solely on performance.

“For two decades of my career I was in an environment where women were promoted and there was never a question of a glass ceiling,” she recalls of her experience in CMO roles at the Institute for International Research and EMAP. “I didn’t experience anything other than if you’re good, you move up the ladder.”

It has only been more recently in her career that she has witnessed alarming gender disparities, where women were “nowhere to be seen on a private equity team” at a roadshow, or “simply not as represented at partner level … because that is the way a company has grown or an industry has developed.”


Perpetuating stereotypes

That problem has been perpetuated by stereotypes, says Kempe. “One of the narratives people have is that the reason more women aren’t promoted is because they have to do more in the family life.”

Flexible working options are often implemented as a result, but these in turn thwart women’s career progression because of a culture of presenteeism: “Promotions still happen on a basis of who is more visible – who appears to be putting the hours in – meaning women are doubly penalised.”

She implores organisations to stop spending time coming up with explanations and instead make their approach evidence-based. “Instead of looking to explain why there is a pay gap, acknowledge that it is completely unacceptable for one group to be paid more than another for doing the same job, if you’re doing it equally as well.” Kempe continues: “Systemically, we have a 20% pay gap. When will we get around to fixing that? This isn’t new. Ten years on, we’re still having this same conversation.”

Instead of looking to explain why there is a pay gap, acknowledge that it is completely unacceptable for one group to be paid more than another for doing the same job

So, what can organisations do to begin redressing the gender imbalance? Kempe believes a pragmatic approach doesn’t have to be costly or time-consuming.

“Yes, there are things like pay parity by role and across an organisation which take time and can cost money, but there are many more things that can be implemented overnight and have a huge positive impact.” Amongst them she lists ensuring all voices are heard and avoiding task and behaviour stereotyping which play on women taking a lesser leadership role compared to their male counterparts.

Making senior women more visible and accessible is a “no-brainer” for Kempe, while sponsors and mentors have a critical role to play, too. “They should be looking out for opportunities to promote women, to put them forward and have their backs. And if a company is looking at a succession plan, they should make sure all the top jobs have an equal gender balance of successors.” (Kempe was succeeded by women in every single one of her past roles, but knows this is far from typical.)

Cultural change is also fundamental, she continues, such as throwing out presenteeism, while swapping the football chat pre-meeting or the post-conference round of golf for something less gendered and more inclusive are simple shifts that any company can make.

“It’s not that CEOs who are male, white and straight are being deliberately stupid, or trying to create their safe world, certainly not consciously. They give money and time to things they believe will help, like a female networking club, whereas in reality looking at promotions criteria is far more impactful.”

That could mean looking at why women aren’t being promoted – and if they are still receiving glowing performance reviews in their current roles, there is a serious disconnect somewhere in the system.


Be prepared to walk away

Ultimately, Kempe hopes for a move towards blind recruiting becoming standard, at least in the earliest rounds of hiring: “There have been so many studies when people couldn’t see in the first round [of interview] and if we’ve got the data to show it makes a difference, why wouldn’t we do it that way in a management consultancy or a tech firm?”

Kempe believes women should be prepared to walk away from employers who talk about reducing their gender pay gap or promote female leaders without a plan to actually realise it. But she’s hopeful that real change is achievable – and soon. “We have the choice to create change. Be aware of what your choices do and actually resolve to act,” she implores.

At the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund, that means helping high-calibre women, who may not otherwise be able to access a top-tier business education, to study at LBS and reach their full potential. Each year, full scholarships will be awarded to four women pursuing their Masters in Management and seven women pursuing their MBA degrees at LBS. It also provides partial scholarships (50%) for five female MBA and four female EMBA candidates.

Now, more than ever, we need leaders who are global citizens. These women will be brilliantly placed to become that – and so much more.

“We’re changing the model and making people think about things differently. We’re not just trying to smash the glass ceiling – we’re trying to smash some of the existing models of philanthropy, too.”

In Kempe’s view, giving money that perpetuates the current system “isn’t very smart”. Instead, she is certain that Laidlaw has found the right partner in LBS, an organisation with whom they have many shared objectives and aspirations.

“It won’t just be that we’re empowering women and giving them the tools and connections to do incredible things,” says Kempe of the fund. “It’s that we’ll be supporting brilliant women who otherwise couldn’t afford to do it, so we’re adding socioeconomic diversity, which is also so important.”

Kempe’s hope is that the scholarship really makes a difference to advancing inclusion in business and inspiring future women leaders by improving opportunities for them in the workplace and beyond. “Now, more than ever, we need leaders who are global citizens. These women will be brilliantly placed to become that – and so much more.”


Find out more about the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund and how to apply