The perfect Gender Diversity Target - 4 tips you cannot afford to miss

Author - Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

We have gathered our top tips for setting gender diversity targets, which will increase your chances of making the journey one of milestone celebrations, rather than an uphill battle towards a Nirvana that was doomed to fail from day one. Following these four guidelines, will enable you to propose a target founded on facts, rather than gut feeling or numbers that looks good in the next press release.

Although Gender Diversity has been a hot topic for some years now, many organizations are just now seeing it rising to the top of the corporate agenda. And like many other boardroom discussions, it is being met with the familiar attitude of "what gets measured, gets done". As C-level commitment and openness on diversity ambitions are recognized as a key requirement to really making an impact on the gender balance in an organization, HR should embrace the request for concrete gender diversity targets. However, HR should also be very much on the ball when it comes to setting these targets. If not, the chance of failure and getting filed under "good intentions that never materialized" is imminent.


Companies with higher level of Gender Diversity are better at retaining talent.

– Human Resource Management Journal


1. Know the facts

Counting the share of females in the organization is a simple task which most HR teams will complete in a matter of minutes. However, digging a little deeper is likely to uncover key findings, which will prove paramount in setting the right targets and prioritizing initiatives.

As an example; you may find that your female share of the workforce is equal to that of your industry and decide there might not reason for investing. But what if you were to look closer at the age spread? If your female share is high among employees with high seniority (and average age) but low among junior talent, then you are looking at a negative trend once that group of loyal female colleagues is approaching retirement.

Besides the female share in the different splits (age, seniority, role type, hierarchy level, location, etc.) you will need some data on the female representation in some basic HR operational KPIs such as; applicants, hires, employee turnover, promotions, etc. These metrics look back, but we also need future expectations such as; growth plans, expected joiners and leavers as well as other movements (leave of absence, retirements, etc.). These are all parameters that you will need to include when simulating an ambitious but realistic future gender diversity.

2. Know your surroundings

An important and very relevant driver for working with gender diversity is the wish to mirror the community in which the organization operates. This sends a strong signal of corporate citizenship and contributes to the CSR agenda on par with other more traditional (and often costly) initiatives like sustainable production methods, etc.

As many organizations operate in multiple locations, often spread across borders and cultures, it is highly advisable to let the different locations weigh into the overall targets according to their representation. As an example; some urban areas with a high concentration of graduates applying to your local sales office could warrant an ambitious target for the coming inflow of female recruits for junior vacancies. But, although female talent often has a stronger representation among graduates in general, you need to consider the specific studies that your organization see as primary hunting grounds. The more technical the field, the lower you may find the share of female students.

Your demographic studies should naturally also apply for the more experienced workforce, where you need to have an idea of the representation of female talent. In some cultures, the inflow of women on the labor market is likely to have happened in different waves compared to others.

These segmented fact-finding missions may be time-consuming but will also be your strongest argument on why your bottom-up target setting ended up as it did.


When considering a potential employer, 61% of women look at the diversity of the employer’s leadership team.

- PriceWaterhouse


3. Know your workforce

Unless you have an abundance of funds and resources to pour into improving the value proposition for female talent, the Gender Diversity priority will be competing with other people initiatives and you need to target your efforts with surgical precision.

So, you have determined that the business case for increasing the female share of employees in your organization is strong and worth pursuing. But what is your value proposition for the female talents that you want to see grow stronger in the time to come? In other words; what is it like being a female in your organization today? The good news here is, that if you are doing recurring engagement surveys, the answers will be at your fingertips. If not, now might be the time to launch it.


Diversity among managers fuels innovation and better decision making.

– Boston Consulting Group

By zooming in on how different segments of your current female colleagues are rating their experience as a member of your organization, you will be able to locate those ever so sought-after low hanging fruits for improving the motivation and satisfaction for your female co-workers. Also: If the culture and opportunities is disfavorable to women, loading more women in through intensified recruitment efforts will just be a (likely expensive) short term relief as they will leave again.

Let's look at some potential findings from the survey data:

Company A saw lower overall engagement scores among females aged 25-35. They then carved out the group who had recently been on maternity leave and noticed that this group to a large extent was the cause of this low result. They also found that this group was massively over-represented in the churn statistics. This led the HR team to focus in on how they were staying in touch with these new mothers while on leave and how to ensure they were in the loop and given influence on the role and tasks they would return to.

Company B's deep dive into their most recent engagement survey showed that, although the share of female managers was low in the company, these managers had teams that were significantly more engaged and displayed higher loyalty - both for male and females. This led to an increased focus on the female talent in the succession planning process with the aim to ensure that these future managers were given mentors and more frequent feedback and support on their growth towards a managerial position.

When Company C looked into the engagement topic of "career opportunities", they found that the female score for the career level just below the Senior Manager level was significantly below that of their male peers. Gender diversity was already implemented in the promotion process, but it was evident that females were not applying for the Senior Management positions. Further digging showed, that although the current female Senior Managers had an acceptable overall engagement score, their score for work/life balance was severely lower than male colleagues. This generated an increased focus on the working conditions for the female Senior Managers, whereof many had smaller children to care for. This work then had the double impact of improving the situation for the female Senior Managers, while boosting their influence as role models for the future female successors.

While overall Motivation & Satisfaction looked balanced across genders for the multinational Company D, a severe deficit was found for females in some teams that had joined as part of an acquisition of Company Z a few years back. However, other similar departments from the joining company showed no signs of this. It turned out that the managers of the affected teams, were all from an earlier merger involving Company Z and this firm had a significantly different culture with very few females on the payroll. These managers were subsequently given special attention and training on more contemporary leadership methods and some rotations were made.


The combination of employee engagement and gender diversity resulted in 46% to 58% higher financial performance.

– Gallup


4. Know the consequences

Deciding in the Boardroom that "we must go from 40% females to an even 50/50 split in two years by hiring more women" is a not uncommon, but yet fatal mistake. Not that it can't be done - but it depends on the willingness to invest and your findings in the three previous steps.

Let's do a simple example:

DivNow Inc. Has 1000 employees. 600 are men and 400 women. The churn rate is 10% for both genders and the recruitment mix is also 60/40. DivNow has been growing steadily at around 5% a year but is expecting accelerated growth in the near future. The board wants a yearly headcount growth of 15% for the next two years. Having understood the gains of a gender diverse workforce and after some gentle nudging from customers, the DivNow board also wants to achieve a 50/50 gender split, which is not unheard of in their industry, also in the next two years. The DivNow board is ready to broadcast their bold plan both internally and externally.

Luckily, the DivNow HR Director steps in and suggests a bottom up approach considering the current female talents, the local labor markets and the HR resources – the request is granted.

The Recruitment Team determines that if certain branding and recruitment headcount investments are made, they will be able to attract 100 relevant female candidates per year. The HR Engagement Team deep dives into the Engagement Survey and predicts that they can reduce female attrition from 10% to 7%. These same actions will have a positive effect on the employer brand towards female talent and as a result, the Recruitment team increases their maximum female intake capacity to 110 per year as a stretched target.

The HR Director returns to the board with an overview, for them to base their decision on. It shows the connections between the gender targets, the growth ambitions, the capacity of HR and the realistic availability of candidates in the market


Diagram: Diversity target setting simulation 

As anticipated, the DivNow board opts for the balanced approach of sacrificing a bit of growth to really make an impact on the strategic imperative of improving the DivNow gender balance. They also grant the necessary funds to HR to achieve their new stretched targets.


What you should take away


Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 % more likely to have financial return above their respective national industry median.

- McKinsey

If gender diversity is on your organization’s agenda, you will at some point be asked to set a target for the future gender mix or worse; be asked to achieve targets already set by senior management. Your priority should be to:

  • Get benchmark data on the industry and communities relevant to your organization
  • Dive as deep as you can in the Engagement Survey data of your current female talent
  • Always do your target setting in a fact-based bottom-up approach

Should you need any help in your hunt for a gender-balanced workforce give us a call at Ennova.

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Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

Morten Hartvig Berg, Head of People Insights

Morten has solid international HR experience and advises our clients who apply employee journey concepts. He is responsible for our People Analytics concepts and contributes to concept development in general.