Closing the gender pay gap

25 June 2018

This article was featured in the July - August 2018 issue of the magazine.

Stephen Frost, founder of f(i) consultancy, argues that employers need to refocus

Brilliant people instinctively try to ‘fix’ problems. To address senior female under-representation, executives often focus on ‘getting’ more women. This fix of representation over culture is rapidly becoming part of the problem.

The fix is often designed by men, or by women operating in male-dominated environments, and often concerns training women to succeed within that male-dominated environment. So, their idea of leadership is often male. This doesn’t do much for diversity. 

The fix involves courses, programmes, initiatives, events, panel discussions, coaching, mentoring. These can all be helpful and have a place. But the real problem isn’t so much the women – if they’re allowed to be their unique diverse selves – it’s the male-dominated system. Brilliant people are currently busy prioritising the wrong thing. The rabbit hole of women’s programmes and schemes is distracting us from the real cultural problem.

There is a catalytic effect of male-dominated cultures attracting more men because they have to adapt less and can fit in more easily. They unconsciously benefit from network effects. Men are more likely to be promoted and more likely to stay in jobs, especially at senior levels. 

One of the reasons women are less likely to be promoted is because they are less self-promoting. This is not a deficiency. We know from studies that whilst men are likely to put themselves forward for a promotion when they can do 50% of the job description, women typically wait until they can do 90% before putting their hand up. And the main reason they are more likely to leave is culture.’s inclusion that drives diversity, not the other way round...


In other words, it’s inclusion that drives diversity, not the other way round. It’s culture that determines the diversity numbers. You can’t fix culture, you have to build it. The ‘fix’ then follows.

Most companies make the mistake of over-reliance on the talent supply side. Yes, the supply of talent is critical for a business and, yes, there are female shortages in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. But it’s the demand side that can make or break how the supply of talent is included. 

At London 2012, one breakthrough moment came by changing the interview location from the Canary Wharf office to Mile End Community Centre. By changing the system, not the candidate, we had a far better effect on the demand side and the behaviour and self-awareness of our recruiters. We achieved a step change in diverse recruitment.

Companies can say they want women, but the real test is in whether this is a fix or a strategic cultural priority. Do they walk the talk? If they say they do, but their business model is still resistant to flexible working, do they really? If they say they do, but all the female promotions are extroverted characters that better fit in with the men, then do they really?

Training alone doesn’t work. Up to 97% of our behaviour is unconscious; to tackle the majority of our actual behaviour, we need nudges.

My consultancy deploys nudges throughout human resource processes and systems. We analyse a system (let’s say recruitment) and identify the gaps and biases in it. Then we prioritise which ones to intervene in, and de-bias them by implementing process changes (nudges).

Recent examples include presenting anonymised CVs side by side, implementing mixed panels, and recruiting and assessing groups of individuals at the same time, not individuals one by one. 

At KPMG UK, in 2014, all regional chairmen were male – and the talent pipeline was (unconsciously) largely male. We led a series of sessions involving all regional chairmen to map the three-year talent pipeline for the business. 

They placed their initial candidates names on a large whiteboard in red ink by groups of one, two and three years away from promotion. Then they re-wrote female names in green. This showed that women had been de-prioritised in the process to date. Candidate-by-candidate they discussed the business case and the reasons for each candidate’s position and slowly and surely many women started to advance from three years out to two years out to ‘promotion ready’. 

We were leading a process to point out the group’s collective blindspots. None of them were maliciously sexist or consciously discriminatory. But all of them had been susceptible to the blindspots of 1-1 promotions, without the big picture view of group aggregation. They simply didn’t know the women as well as the men and the women hadn’t put themselves forward as obviously as the men. This process resulted in more competition, more rigour in decision-making, and more diversity in promotions

So, if you really want to attract more female talent continue your supply side work, but also focus a lot more on the demand side. And by all means continue your unconscious bias training, but focus a lot more on the real unconscious behaviour going on below the surface.

As Bob Diamond said, “culture is what happens when no one thinks they are being watched”. Now they are.