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Stop trying to fix women – start fixing the system

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 Aug 2023

Rather than seeing typically female traits as barriers to career progression, redesign the system, says diversity, equity and inclusion leader Joe Consedine – majority over-represented groups must make the shift, not the women themselves.

Executive-level attitudes towards diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) seem to have shifted from a ‘bolt-on’ to a mission-critical strategy since the pandemic, driven by tight labour markets. However, unless we accept that the problem lies with flawed systems with a bias against under-represented groups progressing to the most senior levels, little will change.

That’s the view of Joe Consedine, a former New Zealand General Manager of Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand (ANZ) now consulting full time in DE&I across a range of organisations and industries.

“Conversations are focusing on using inclusion to retain existing top talent, let alone attracting new diverse talent needed to grow and meet business objectives,” he says. However, the focus needs to shift towards redesigning the system rather than seeing typically female traits as an obstacle to career progression, Consedine explains. 

“We need to stop trying to fix the women. The single biggest barrier to women progressing into leadership positions is unconscious and conscious bias that sits within our organisational, workplace and societal systems. We are still trying to assimilate under-represented groups into a system enabling men to succeed. It’s the majority over-represented groups that need to make the shift, not the women themselves.”

“I have privilege against every dimension of diversity; I’m white, male, heterosexual, able bodied and still consider myself young. So I have never experienced discrimination based on my identity in a workplace environment. That’s been a huge foundation for my career success. I don’t make that point to make anyone uncomfortable; I make that point to say that with privilege comes responsibility. And that responsibility is to create space for others.” 

Any concerns that the privileged will lose out in the push from greater diversity are unfounded, Consedine says. “Some people worry that they will give up something for themselves, but my argument is we can grow that pie together.”

As growing use of automation and AI removes much of the grunt work from accountancy, the importance of skillsets typically demonstrated more by women is rising to the fore, he says. Leadership capability frameworks will increasingly hinge on empathy, empowerment and collaboration. 

On paper at least, it’s time for women to shine – but across the accountancy profession, organisational models continue to protect the (male-dominated) status quo, Consedine warns. The partnership model and hierarchical, pyramid-shaped organisations are hard to break down, he says. Despite a strong pipeline of women coming through traditional education pathways into the profession, all too many get stuck in that middle layer. “Often the men say that this is a generational problem and it’s just going to take time. I can’t agree with that because we’ve been saying it for years. Change requires intentional and bold leadership.”

Systemic change

Systemic bias – albeit unconscious – is inherent in recruitment and progression policies. And the frantic commercial imperative to recruit means that inclusion is often sidelined. “In this post-COVID-19 working environment everyone is so stretched – they have a project to deliver quickly and need a ‘safe pair of hands’. Invariably, the person that gets recruited looks like them because it’s what they unconsciously know and trust.” 

Despite research pointing to the innovation, productivity and wellbeing benefits of diversity, homogeneity is easier, Consedine acknowledges. Diversity of thought means decisions are harder and take longer. “In the current busy environment with timeline-driven work, people don’t have the patience to work with that. It’s a barrier.”

Instead of hiring for ‘culture fit’ – a euphemism for ‘are they like me?’ – Consedine says ‘culture add’ should be top of the recruitment wishlist. “The accounting profession faces a huge opportunity to keep evolving and transforming and disrupting itself in order to remain a trusted, relevant and in-demand profession. It’s super-high risk for organisations not to have diverse talent around the table making decisions and helping with product development and go-to-market strategies.” 

Meanwhile, progressive parental leave policies that allow real flexibility would go a long way to tackling the motherhood penalty that women experience when they have a career break with children. Removing the financial disincentive for men to share the load has already been shown to make a difference, Consedine says. “Companies such as KPMG New Zealand provide equal leave entitlements for the primary and secondary carer – that’s a real game changer for what we would describe as traditional gender roles.”

It’s also a misconception, Consedine says, that the current system is working well for men. It’s time to move on from headline financial metrics including the gender pay gap and instead take a more holistic view of success, he says. “Men’s mental health is in a horrific state and statistics around male suicide are awful. The system isn’t working for anyone.” 

DE&I progress is impossible unless you understand what diversity and inclusion means for your organisation and why it’s important. Understanding your baseline using data is essential, “then you can start to develop richer insights around the lived experience of your people within your firm. Set targets and devise strategies along dimensions important to you that you will work on over the next 12 or 18 months. Revisit the data and track progress,” Consedine advises. 

Consedine has developed a framework specifically designed for accounting and professional services organisations that are starting out on their DE&I journey to help them benchmark their current maturity. He then works with them to design a tailored DE&I action plan. 

“By generating some momentum, all of a sudden the energy around DE&I will start to change and it will build and become part of the DNA and culture within your organisation,” Consedine says. But there is no silver bullet, he advises – it’s constant evaluation and tweaking, and it requires a commitment of time, effort and resource.

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