By Melissa J. Anderson

As one of the worlds largest employers, McDonald’s has the ability to make a huge impact on gender equality around the globe. But how do you design a comprehensive program that will engage and impact 1.7 million diverse employees spread across various regions and cultural preconceptions?

This year McDonald’s was one of Catalyst‘s annual award winners for its program “Freedom Within a Framework: Global Women’s Initiative” by creating a program that would elevate the stance of women within the McDonald’s restaurants and corporate locations around the world. The program has put significantly more women into senior leadership roles, but the number of women in restaurant manager role it has also seen a large jump, specifically in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe, and Asia region.

According to Catalyst, between 2006 and 2009, the number of women in restaurant management roles has risen in APMEA from 27 percent to 35 percent; in Europe, from 45 percent to 52 percent; and in the United States, from 62 percent to 64 percent.

Between 2006 and 2010, women managing directors increased from 0 to 36 percent in APMEA, from 10 percent to 14 percent in Europe; and from 13 to 38 percent in the United States. Women on the board of directors also increased from 14 percent to 23 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Improving Diversity Means Improving the Workforce

At the Catalyst Awards Conference last week, Tim Fenton, President – Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa, McDonald’s Corporation, explained that McDonald’s isn’t trying to change the cultures it operates – some of which are traditionally not as open to women in leadership roles. But the company is simply seeking to build the best workforce possible.

Rather than picking and choosing the areas in which to implement the initiatives, the company thought it would get less push back if it was an across-the-board program. He explained, “So we made it a business initiative [worldwide]. If we can be known as the best place for women to work, what an advantage that would be for us in our workforce.”

Leadership and Grassroots

Pat Harris, McDonald’s Chief Diversity Officer explained that the program involves both top down leadership and grassroots support. She said, “Depending on what market we were in, women felt different levels of comfort in jumping into conversations with their colleagues [about women in leadership].”

She continued, “So we developed steering committees led by senior women… and the programs operate at a different pace depending on the comfort level of the women in the culture.”

Jill McDonald, CEO & President of McDonald’s UK, and President of the Northern Division for McDonald’s Europe said that, even within Europe, comfort levels different considerably for female employees.

“We couldn’t provide a one-size fits all approach,” she said, citing differences in country laws and cultural differences. “We do have the steering committee to ensure that we are sharing best practices,” she explained.

The company has also implemented incentives for leaders to promote women and diverse candidates. Likewise, she said, McDonald said, “The people who don’t show the ability to manage [diverse candidates] will not be able to move forward in their career in McDonald’s.”

But most of all, senior managers must show their support for the program. Harris said, “Top management must be fully committed to the value of gender diversity and diversity in general for the initiative to succeed.”