One day over the Christmas holiday, I walked into my kitchen to find my daughter and her friend—both in their early 20s—having an animated discussion about the friend’s recent job interview. They waved me over to give my opinion: “You know about women and work, don’t you?” (It’s nice to know they’ve picked up something about what I do!)

The gist of the story was this: The friend (let’s call her Anya) is a graduate in psychology and management, while the job was a graduate HR role. During her interview, Anya asked about advancement. One of the interviewers remarked that it was more challenging for women as they often had other commitments and priorities.

White-faced, the second interviewer stepped in and swiftly moved the conversation along. Anya’s job offer came with a non-disclosure agreement asking her to keep the details of her interview confidential.

Should Anya, the girls asked, take the job?

That company’s website proclaimed its commitment to equal opportunities. But something was amiss between that public commitment and what was happening on the ground; between what the company said it did, and what Anya was told about women in her interview.

While you might be thinking that this example is a one-off, it’s a much bigger problem than leaders realise.

Culture is critical

Since 2017, the research I have led at Accenture has measured the impact of culture on women’s (and men’s) ability to thrive and advance at work. In the most equal cultures, women are 4x more likely to advance than in the least equal. And more than 9 in 10 of the women working in these positive cultures love their jobs and aspire to be in leadership.

The right culture drives progress towards gender balance in the workplace and in leadership. Plus, the business impact is clear: better growth, more innovation.

The right culture drives progress towards gender balance in the workplace and in leadership.

Since we know a culture of equality allows everyone—especially women—to advance, it’s alarming to note how little change there has been in the workplace.

But progress is too slow

Over the three years of our research, employees have seen no change in leaders’ efforts to improve culture. While most senior leaders (88%) describe the workplace culture as being inclusive, only 44% of employees agree.

This perception gap goes deeper:

  • More than three-quarters of leaders (76%) say employees have good control over when, where and how they work. Just 29% of employees agree.
  • 59% of leaders say they reward employees against positive workplace culture outcomes. But just 11% of employees agree.
  • Two-thirds of leaders (68%) feel they create empowering environments in which, for example, employees can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure. Less than a third of employees agree (36%).

Behind the slow pace of culture change and the slow progress towards equality (only 2.8% of Fortune Global 500 CEOs are women and the percentage of women in senior leadership is just 29%) lies an unwillingness of leaders to truly commit. They might be saying it, but few are doing much about it: Only 21% of leaders have made culture a business priority.

Some leaders “get it”

But there’s hope. A small percentage of leaders in our study—we call them Culture Makers—have aligned what they say, do and drive to create real culture change.

It’s no coincidence, given what we know about the power of culture to unlock potential, that these organisations showed profits 3.2 times higher than those of their less-progressive peers.

How to accelerate your journey to equality

So how can you become a Culture Maker and start to realise the benefits?

  1. Explicitly prioritise culture change and diversity as a business imperative. Only 21% of the senior leaders in our study listed this within their top five priorities and fewer than one in four have an explicit target. The Culture Makers were much more likely to have clearly stated ambitions.
  2. Walk in the shoes of your employees to ensure that your goals and their experiences are aligned; go beyond measuring diversity by numbers to assess how inclusive your organization really is, and whether there’s a perception gap that needs to be addressed.
  3. Closing the perceptions gaps will mean leaders rolling up their sleeves and working with their people to change together.

Back in our kitchen, Anya made her decision before she’d even finished telling me the story. No way was she signing something that effectively excused someone who thinks women are less ambitious than men. That’s not how she saw herself. And why would she work for a company that was not authentic in its claims about equality?

Of course, Anya found a brilliant role soon thereafter. In the war for talent, you have to mean what you say when it comes to equality. It’s the culture, not the rhetoric, that nurtures great people and great thinking.

Barbara Harvey

Managing Director – Accenture Research

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