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Firms learning more, saying less about gender gap

Two years ago, Avon executives made a startling discovery: The company, a beauty brand known for its legions of "Avon ladies," had relatively few women in top management positions.

[NEW YORK] Two years ago, Avon executives made a startling discovery: The company, a beauty brand known for its legions of "Avon ladies," had relatively few women in top management positions.

Ninety-eight per cent of employees in district sales management were women. But most top leadership roles in that area were held by men, said Leslie Mays, Avon's vice president of global inclusion.

"Even though we were predominantly women, we were dominated by men," she told a conference room of business leaders this week in New York.

The event, hosted by the United Nations' Women's Empowerment Principles, focused on how organizations chart progress in gender equality. Yet representatives for Avon, when later reached for comment, declined to release the percentage of women in upper-management roles.

Avon is among a growing number of multinational companies that have turned to analytics to track what happens to female employees throughout their careers - but like many businesses, it is hesitant to disclose what it finds.

Google is a prime example. The company has long gathered data on its workforce. Only last year, only after outside pressure, did it make the figures public. Only 17 per cent of Google's technology workers are women.

The overall gender breakdown that Avon released is far less stark. Avon employs 33,200 people worldwide, 60 per cent of whom are women. Seven of the company's 11 board members are women, a rare majority in corporate America, where women fill only 16.9 per cent of Fortune 500 board seats.

The cosmetics juggernaut also publicly strives to be a gender-diversity champion, running charities focused on fighting breast cancer and speaking out about domestic violence. So why was it struggling to promote its female employees to senior ranks? And why won't it share a status update?

"We agree that it is important to assess and track gender-specific data and this is an important part of Avon's Global Women's Strategy," the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. "During her presentation this week, Leslie shared several data points from an internal study to help illustrate our program." But, Avon said, "The full findings of our gender analytics is confidential." Representatives from L'Oreal and Carrefour also spoke on the U.N. panel Wednesday about data reporting. Both emphasized the importance of tracking female employee outcomes. Neither company has released findings on how near it is to closing the gender gap.

For companies such as Avon - which Mays said is building a "women-centric environment" - the roadblocks to female employees' advancement are harder to discern than at male-dominated companies, where cultural barriers are more obvious. Avon started collecting gender-specific data to answer a few questions: How often were women getting promoted? Where did corporate mobility stagnate? What forces pushed turnover? What policies helped new parents stick around?

Mercer, a talent consulting firm, works with global companies to crunch such numbers. Although a Mercer spokesman declined to reveal how specific companies such as Avon monitor their workforce, he said that, in general, analysts sift through administrative data stored in a company's human resources system. Every career event is recorded: promotion, pay raise, supervisor change and relocation.

"Data tells the story of what happens to talent inside the bounds of the company," said Brian Levine, partner and co-leader of strategy and analytics at Mercer. "You can map out the best experiences and paths and look to replicate those to ensure everyone has access to high-potential paths." Mercer examined the careers of 1.7 million employees at 164 companies in 28 countries. Results, published last year, reinforced what a wide body of previous evidence has suggested: Women worldwide appear to have a tougher time breaking into their employers' upper ranks.

At the average gl obal organization, researchers found, support staff - employees at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy - is made up of 56 per cent men and 44 per cent women. Men, however, make up 76 per cent of senior management.

During the past three years, Mr Levine said, more companies have begun searching for ways to better balance gender ratios: "I think that's because companies are struggling to find access to talent," he said. "Innovation has become front and center - and research shows diversity links to innovation." Still, companies prefer confidentiality. Levine can't reveal any information about his clients, who his clients are, or how many clients Mercer assists with gender tracking. Results, too, largely remain under wraps.

That may soon change. Participants in the U.N. Global Compact, a human rights policy initiative for businesses, may start answering gender-specific questions as part of their public Communication on Progress annual reports. Only 60 companies have participated, though more than 8,000 companies worldwide are part of the UN Global Compact network.

Stephanie Oueda, who leads the international diversity team for L'Oreal in Paris, sat on the panel Wednesday with Mays. She said L'Oreal, like Avon, is using data to understand how to retain highly skilled female employees. The company found, for example, that a 14-week maternity leave reduces turnover.

Google's data also revealed a strong correlation between maternity leave and retention. In 2007, the company increased paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks and saw that the rate at which new mothers left Google subsequently fell by 50 percent, YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal column.

Better analytics on gender could drive economic growth worldwide, said Levine, the Mercer executive. Eliminating the gap between male and female employment rates could boost gross domestic product in the United States by 5 per cent, in Japan by 9 per cent, in the United Arab Emirates by 12 per cent and in Egypt by 34 per cent, according to calculations by the International Monetary Fund.

Avon's 2013 study, which revealed an uneven gender ratio in sales management, looked at the company's top-performing markets. On the list: Brazil, Russia, Mexico and the United States. "Even with all of our success in gender diversity, we still had to step back and ask, 'What do women need?' " Ms Mays told the conference crowd. "We still have to focus on making this mission and living this mission into reality." That could mean sharing its numbers publicly in the future, an Avon spokesman said. In the meantime, the company will just share them with human resources and sales-team leaders.