By Melissa J. Anderson

According to new research by Boston Consulting Group, real gender equity at corporations won’t be achieved until companies take a pragmatic and measured approach to pipeline management. The authors, Susanne Dyrchs and Rainer Strack, explain that quick-fix approaches like women in the boardroom initiatives that are purely based on pumping up numbers at the top won’t make a difference in the long-term.

They write, “It quickly became apparent early in our research that there is limited benefit to be gained by initiating yet more affirmative-action programs or by simply placing more women on boards of directors, for example.”

That’s why companies need to approach gender balance from a cultural pipeline management standpoint – understanding that each company must diagnose its own particular challenges and address them in a way that is uniquely appropriate to the situation.

Gender Diversity Research

Dyrchas and Strack explain that the slim percentages of women in senior management are a global problem – although BRIC countries and those Southeast Asia (where senior management is composed of 26% and 32% of women respectively) tend to do better than those in the G7 (where only 18% of senior management roles are women).

While many companies still struggled with gender discrimination, most of the companies BCG studied seemed to approach gender diversity as an ethical obligation. A few, BCG said, had advanced to the most evolved view – that diversity can boost a company’s strategic position. The researchers write,  “…these companies are actively using diversity to accelerate innovation, engage new markets and customers, and thus create competitive advantage.”

It is important, they continue, for senior management to reach this stage of understanding in order for gender diversity work to be successful.

The research presented several reasons that companies may not be successfully promoting women into senior management. BCG explains:

“Our analysis of the opinions expressed by the respondents (who were split almost evenly between men and women), reveals that relatively few respondents blamed the stereotypical ‘female persona’—less assertive leaders who are less willing to fight for power—for a lack of progress by female managers. Instead, many participants cited as impediments factors such as a lack of commitment from the chief executive and so-called male-oriented selection criteria (i.e., ‘self-cloning’).”

According to BCG, companies can best determine the appropriate plan of action by performing quantitative and qualitative diagnostics on past career advancement research. For example, comparing the amount of time males and females spend in a particular role before getting a promotion, and then carefully developing interviews or focus groups to determine why these lengths of time may be different. The main point, though, is that these metrics will differ by firm, which is why firms must create their own pipeline management initiatives to address company-specific barriers to gender diversity.

Successful Initiatives

BCG outlined a few successful programs in order to address different specific issues within each company.

For example, in order to address a trend of women being unable to reenter the workforce after taking time off to raise children, Commerzbank establish its “return to work” initiative that helps women on- and off-ramp. Dyrchas and Stack write, “The bank also has a ‘keep in touch’ initiative that helps those on parental leave. They can use 10 percent of their flexible working time to stay in contact with the bank or to participate in training to pursue their career goals.”

The research also points out the importance of dismantling a “culture of presence” or a face-time culture, which often impacts women more than men. “Clearly, such restrictive workplaces do not readily accommodate nursing mothers and new mothers facing postpartum difficulties, childhood illnesses, and a host of other new family challenges,” Dyrchas and Stack explain.

Finally, BCG discussed the importance of setting specific gender goals – like diversity gargets per manager (which only 35% of the companies in the study actually have done) or financial incentives related to diversity (which only 22% of the companies in the study have done).

According to BCG, setting targets like around recruiting, promotion, and retention of women is important for driving home the business importance of diversity. Setting a time frame for achieving these goals also makes them more tangible.