Leading Practice Gender Equality: Policies and Procedures that translate into Positive Organizational Change

Terrance W. Fitzsimmons and Miriam S. Yates

There remain persistent concerns regarding the under-representation of women in senior leadership roles worldwide in spite of their increasing workforce participation and superior academic performance (ABS, 2012; Catalyst, 2016; Stoet & Geary, 2015; Valla & Ceci, 2014). Organizations, with a concern to address this issue, implement a range of strategic HRM policies and procedures that target inequality. Nevertheless, the metrics by which gender equality programs and practices are measured, if indeed they are measured at all (WGEA, 2018), are inconsistent amongst organizations. Kulik (2014) argues this has resulted in a research – practice gap that sees populist interventions becoming the mainstream rather than empirically based constellations of policies and procedures. Moreover, a large portion of our empirical understanding of gender equality policy impact has emerged on the basis of employee feedback and reports on their experience as recipients of such policy (Kulik, 2014) rather than examining organizations themselves.

The value of such individual-level research is undisputed – particularly when understanding the employee-level outcomes of diversity and inclusion policy – however there remains little understanding of how organizational perspectives of such policies and procedures impact upon implementation efforts. Indeed, recent provocations from diversity management scholars (e.g., Kulik, 2014; O’Leary & Sandberg, 2017; Trittin & Schoeneborn, 2017) have called for greater attention upon macro-level drivers and impacts of programs, strategies and practices in an effort to yield more targeted suggestions for practitioners. The benefit of adopting this more meta-perspective that examines organizational philosophies and mindsets that drive gender equality, allows for scholars and practitioners alike to better understand the interaction between top-down processes and bottom-up adoption that inhibit or promote gender equality. We answer this call by examining the gender equality policies and procedures implemented within Australian organizations which have consistently maintained a ‘gold standard’ of gender equality practice over a five-year reporting period from 2013-14 to 2017-18.

In Australia, non-public sector firms with >100 employees (4,644 firms, representing 4,156,340 employees) are legislatively required to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) on a range of gender metrics such as remuneration, flexible working availability, gender composition and gender equality consultation. A subset of organizations who fulfil the baseline criteria are then permitted to apply for citation status as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE), reflecting their commitment to gender equality through continuous improvement of their policies / procedures and diversity outcomes. Notably, to obtain citation status, organizations must have the sign-off from the board on the content of reporting, resulting in the highest level of governance in any corporate organization assuming accountability for compliance with the stated activities and procedures that organizations report engaging with. Since inception, reporting to the WGEA has coincided with positive changes on key indicators of gender diversity in Australia such as decreases in the gender pay gap, increased numerical representation of women in key decision-making roles, and shifting demography in historically male-dominated industries (WGEA, 2018).

In spite of these developments, recent data from Australian industry shows that organizational beliefs around the ‘ideal worker’ remain synonymous with an uninterrupted career, in one industry, with the ability to focus solely upon service to their employer. Concurrently, research shows that highly successful Australian women demonstrate greater readiness to change employers throughout their careers to gain promotion relative to their male counterparts (Fitzsimmons & Callan, 2015). Such turnover results in a host of expenses for employers managing their talent pipeline and suggests that organizations are failing to understand the complex forces that impact on women’s careers (Cook and Glass, 2014). Organizations are thus increasingly aware of the need to adopt more flexible and diverse modes of working, among other workplace practices, to support gender equality (Green, Alhadeff, Akhmetova, & Tracey, 2017). It is also clear that top-down influence is an important contributor to successful gender equality interventions, with evidence that when CEOs initiate and monitor flexible working practices, for example, they are more successful (e.g., Brescoll, Glass, & Sedlovskaya, 2013; Maxwell, 2005). But flexibility at work is not the only answer to gender equality. The uptake and utility of flexible working arrangements as a means of achieving gender diversity (through accommodating – most commonly women’s – dual demands of care and work) is constrained by job character and level, particularly in firms where there is a concern for client interaction and availability (Michielsens, Bingham, & Clarke, 2013). Indeed, Baxter and Chesters (2011) suggest that not all gender equality procedures result in equally positive work-family balance perceptions, instead, it is those that allow for greater autonomy and control that provide the greatest positive shift. Together, these results suggest that CEO sponsorship of work-life initiatives is a signal for employees that the organization more broadly is committed to gender equality (Ali, 2016). To this end, we might anticipate from the data that:


Proposition 1: Overt CEO advocacy (e.g., planned, ad hoc and informal) of gender equality policies and procedures (e.g., flexibility, parental leave) will be a key feature of citation holder’s responses across reporting periods.

It is clear that the paradigm from which organizations develop and implement gender equality policy and practices can impact upon the interventions’ success. Moreover, the subsequent HR principles brought to life through the stated values, norms and beliefs that inform employee behaviour and ways of working (Arthur & Boyles, 2007), also converge to govern how rewards are distributed and assigned to employees. To this end, we propose that:


Proposition 2: To the extent that CEOs embody a diversity paradigm, we will also see evidence of more strategic/holistic HR principles and rhetoric surrounding gender equality practices in citation holding organizations.

Recent research from project-based organizations attest to the value of combining strategic initiatives. Baker, Ali, and French (2018) demonstrate that focusing on both numerical representation of women who report directly to the CEO and the provision of work-life initiatives produces greater gender representativeness throughout the organization. That a combination of factors can produce measurable outcomes in gender representativeness throughout an organization – a challenge oft cited in STEM – leads to the proposition that:


Proposition 3: Citation holders that exhibit more strategic/holistic gender equality   paradigms – incorporating a focus on both quality and quantity metrics of inclusion – will describe more diverse and detailed combinations of policies and procedures that tackle gender equality.



These propositions were explored within a 5-year longitudinal dataset from 58 Australian organizations who were awarded EOCGE citation status in each of these years as well as a data set of 120 organisations who received the citation in 2017-18. To obtain this citation, organizations respond to a series of questions surrounding seven key topic areas: 1) leadership, accountability and focus, 2) learning and development, 3) gender pay-gap analysis, 4) flexible work arrangements that support managing work and care, 5) employee consultation, 6) preventing sex-based harassment and discrimination, and, 7) targets for improving gender equality outcomes. Responding to these questions involves both dichotomous yes/no and open-text responses. Qualitative responses will be analysed using a thematic analysis approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006).



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