A new way to chart gender inequality

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(MoneyWatch) For the past 10 years, I have worked with companies and industry association on diversity issues. The central challenge: how to attract an equal number of men and women, and then keep them. To get started, I would always collect data about where the women in a company were and in what proportion, and the resulting graph almost always looked like Mount Everest -- large numbers of women clustered at the base and a meager few at the pinnacle.

Presenting this picture to senior managers, I'd ask just one question: Is this the kind of organization you would encourage your daughter to join to start her career?

Today, the European Institute for Gender Equality will launch a more sophisticated version of that basic graph. It's new gender equality index will seek to show how well -- or badly -- countries in Europe are progressing in evening out differences between men and women.

"Gender-sensitive statistics help us better understand the hurdles we need to bring down to make all citizens truly equal, and the Gender Equality Index does just that," said Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, in a statement. "In our fight against unemployment, improving job opportunities for women is a matter of fairness, but it is also good for society and good for the economy."

In certain companies, it's clear that some leaders have taken this message to heart. Steve Howard, Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA, takes diversity as part of his brief. For the home furnishings giant, having the best, most diverse workforce is part of ensuring the company's future. At TEDGlobal this week, he was characteristically unequivocal. Said Howard:

"We are not prepared to wait another hundred years for women to get equality. We have established our women's network to lead change and create equality at every level of the company. Forty-seven percent of our managers are women, and we want to see that everywhere."

Everywhere I go these days, I hear growing impatience with the rate of change on this topic. We have heard decades of lip-service paid to equality, seen a wide range of initiatives and been presented with lots of excuses. Women don't want to advance, they aren't prepared to play the game, they won't lean in, they don't fit in. What Howard is saying is that, in the end, it depends on company leadership.

If an organization is prepared to make cultural changes that value what women contribute at work -- adapting so family issues aren't deemed female issues, rewarding managers who mentor and promote women, monitoring rigorously how fast progress is achieved -- then the half-hearted progress that has typified the last decade could be a thing of the past.

I live for the day I can stop drawing my graph.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.