Hiring `Quick Fix' Won't Help Europe's Companies Add More Women

  • Broader programs required for gender balance, Mercer says
  • In junior ranks, women promoted at one-third the rate of men

European companies are hiring more women into top management, but not doing much to retain those executives or encourage future female leaders, according to a Mercer report.

Women make up about 21 percent of top jobs in 138 large companies in the region, a proportion that could rise to 33 percent by 2025 if hiring and promotion continue at current rates. The gain may unravel, though, because companies don’t have steps in place to help those further down the ladder, the report said. 

Female employees are promoted from the most-junior jobs at one-third the rate of their male colleagues in these firms, leaving them in the minority at every level above support staff, Mercer found. The emphasis on executives has been driven, in part, by government quotas in Norway, France and elsewhere to appoint more women to corporate boards.

“The focus is on hiring to improve representation at the most senior posts,” said Brian Levine, a Mercer partner who specializes in workforce analytics. It’s a “quick fix” that works to diversify senior management, he said. “Hiring at the top is a kind of box-checking.”

CEOs Involved

A more thorough approach would include regularly reviewing pay equity, more support for employees who take leave, and engaging more men in the process, Mercer said. According to the survey, 59 percent of companies said their chief executive officer participated in the push for gender equality and 37 percent said other male employees were involved.

Some companies are doing more. At Zurich-based UBS AG, which responded to the survey, women make up 38 percent of total workers and 22 percent of officers at the director level or above, according to company data. The bank is trying to improve gender balance with mentoring programs and making sure that women are candidates for bigger jobs, said Giulia Fitzpatrick, a managing director who co-chairs the company’s diversity and inclusion group for technology employees.

“There is a clear business rationale to take this topic very seriously,” she said, citing research that shows women control, create or influence 27 percent of the world’s investable assets, or $20 trillion. The bank has created wealth-planning courses aimed specifically at female clients, she added.

The Mercer report found little change in the gender pay gap, which stands at 16.4 percent in Europe. Among salaried workers, the gap is higher at 31 percent. Less than one-third of surveyed companies said they had systems in place to remedy pay disparities.

“Organizations under scrutiny have focused on the numbers as they move to quickly increase the representation of women in top positions,” Mercer said in the report. “They have not put into place the systemic solutions that would be required to support long-term success.”

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