Gender inequality is one of the most talked about, written about and debated subject in recent years, and it is very well documented. Since 2006, the Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum aggregates at global and national level a set of 14 indicators into a Global Gender Gap Index [i]. That such an index exists, and the fact that it can be consistently reported since 2006 across 144 countries is remarkable. The world knows with great precision in most countries if women’s employment, education, health and political participation is on par with men’s. Consequently, in 2018, if an organisation has no clear view of where they stand on gender equality, they are not looking very hard.
There is undeniably some fatigue when it comes to the subject of equal representation of sexes in leadership. And this is worrying because in the past 6 years, gender equality has not particularly progressed [ii] (See below evolution of gap income 2010 - 16 in the Netherlands).
At just 21 years of age, twin sisters Charlotte and Fleur Melkert already have very valuable business experience to share in this area. In the summer 2016, they co-founded Female Investments, a recruitment business specialised in searching and placing women in Finance, which in the past 2 years has grown to roughly 20 placements per year, mostly in senior and management roles.
Female investments started not as a feministic statement to make a dent in a male dominated business world, but rather as the result of solution thinking on an imbalanced market: In 2016 there was nobody in the Dutch recruitment market focusing solely on selecting and placing women. Intrigued, they did their homework, and quickly arrived at their leap of faith [iii]:
"Diversity and gender equality is a subject that has been talked to death. Now the time for talking is over, and there is plenty to do."
Starting in business at age 19, Charlotte and Fleur were not inhibited by doubt or by fear. They recall in synch (as you do when twins…) that they sometimes encountered mild scepticism from people who did not take them seriously. No matter, they just went at it with an open mind and dealt with the happy fact that it worked.
Just like the numbers, the sources and remedies of gender parity gaps in organisations are also well known [iv]. Many firms like The Boston Consulting Group regularly publish on this subject. Their August 2012 study on gender parity in management roles [v] (Thereafter: BCG 2012) gives a limpid picture of where the problem is, and a 2017 study confirms what works and what does not [vi]. One successful lever has to do with how women enter an organisation in the first place.
It may seem obvious said like this, but if a company with high gender disparity works with agencies that have been their partners for years, it is no stretch to think that said partners have the same bias (BCG 2012). Talent market nowadays offer most profiles in the female version at the desired level of competence. Existing market imbalances are well known, and in many cases proactively being addressed [vii]. Pegging gender inequality on male/female competence disparities, is in most cases a fallacy (at best), one essential key is to work on the talent pipeline.
“Voluntarily filling up the candidate pipeline with more women levels the playing field for them and increases the quality of hires overall”.
Working with Female Investment is therefore a simple yet powerful way of addressing gender equality challenges. They invest time and effort both with their customers to improve their attractiveness for women, and for the candidates to confidently go after the job.
“The journey to gender equality follows a route of empowerment and transformation, not one of entitlement and litigation”
says Charlotte, and Fleur adds:
“The point is not that there is no glass ceiling, but more that overcoming the glass ceiling where it exists means refusing to let it be part of your mindset, a very real challenge.”
Making an organisation more attractive to women is not only about having childcare close to the office. It has a lot more to do with flexibility and real cultural change in the business (BCG 2012). It also touches communication. David Silverberg writing for the BBC reports that just the way a job offer is written drives perception of a more male or female friendly environment [viii].
Charlotte and Fleur do not try to shine in the conventional sense of the term, they don’t brag. I found their conversation free flowing and calm, with almost a nonchalant air about it. Maybe it was the casual Friday atmosphere or the sunny weather, or even the stunning view from their office close to the Central Station downtown in Rotterdam. But I don’t think so. The thing is, they just don’t fret. They go about their business calmly and mind it wisely. Mind you it does not mean that they lack momentum…
This year the twins founded Equalture, an HR Tech startup with a mission to eliminate screening bias in online application processes. The solution went live in May 2018 and is now being tested with early adopters. Equalture was as a logical follow-through of the Female Investment idea, as they realised that customers where frequently asking about how technology could help them to cut bias out of candidate screening. The app is a clever mix of concepts that have been around for a while but never assembled quite in this way: Profile parsing, gamification, anonymous CV, and profile-based matching [ix].
Equalture therefore represents a deepening of their diversity business, by preventing not only gender inequality, but also many other forms of biases. In the end, they have chosen business as their art form. And true to form, they convey the well-known and proven business benefits of a true-hearted and well driven diversity initiative.
“Diversity is a business case. Just talking and agreeing about the philosophy of gender equality does not drive change in an organisation.”
You may be tempted to think that a profit motivated approach of a societal project somewhat deprives it from its intrinsic moral value. Fortunately in her sweeping January 18 Ted talk, Wendy Woods (Another brilliant and successful woman, of the aforementioned Boston Consulting Group), explains to us why good business and societal progress go hand in hand: If we let it to Corporate Social Responsibility and Charity programmes to fix the world’s problems we are going to wait for a long time. She invites us to consider that businesses are meant to serve the world as much as they serve clients, employees and shareholders It's exactly what Mélanie Rieback also said when I spoke to her)
And I hope that’s what in the end more women in leadership will bring us: making Societal Impact a core feature of business life. Cliché as it may be, if women like connecting better than competing (Sheryl Sandberg makes a compelling case on how that works), maybe they will help us save the world.
Because if we are to judge by the results of the mostly male leadership so far… we’ll need the help.
Charlotte studied Business at the Rotterdam School of Management and has an MSc. Innovation Management. She also worked in parallel as a customer relations employee at Scoren met Energie, and as a math teacher. Charlotte is vice-chairwoman of the RSC OndernemersCirkel, an association helping students with their first steps as entrepreneurs.
Fleur studied at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam first in Criminology and then got a MSc. in Management and Organisations. She also worked during her studies as a tutor with Lyceo and as a sourcing specialist for JouwICTvacature.nl.
[i] These KPIs cover 4 areas where gender parity should be attained: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Political empowerment. World Economic Forum, Harvard University and UCLA Berkeley, 2017, The Global Gender Gap report, 361p.
[ii] According to the Global Gender Gap report, the Netherlands closed 2017 at the same level of gender gap as 2011…
[iii] As understood in the Lean Startup principles. Ries, E., 2011, The Lean Startup, How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Crown Business, 320p.
[iv] And if you want a more in-depth view of how it feels to be a woman experiencing the business world today, Sheryl Sandberg answers many questions in Lean In. (Sandberg, S. 2013, Lean In: Women work and the will to lead, Alfred A. Knopf).
[v] Dyrchs, S. and Strack, R., 2012, Shattering the Glass Ceiling, An Analytical Approach to Advancing Women into Leadership Roles, Boston Consulting Group, 22p.
[vi] Green A, et al, 2017, What’s Working to Drive Gender Diversity in Leadership, Boston Consulting Group, 20p.
[vii] For example, for the technology industry through Women who code.
[viii] Silverberg, D. 12/06/2018, Why do some job adverts put women off applying? BBC News online. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-44399028
[ix] Candidates apply by parsing social profile information (Away with the CV), and play games used for measuring personality traits. Equalture thereafter creates a candidate profile, omitting all information lending itself to biased screening. This profile is then matched by an algorithm to the job profile. Equalture does use machine learning, but also openly let its users adjust the weighting of several profile facets, thereby making AI more user-friendly. Once a user has declared a candidate screened, their decision is recorded in the system, and only then the name, gender and address are made visible.
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