« Prelude to Davos | Main | Why is perfect the enemy of better? »

How women can help you beat the competition

By Anne Weisberg - January 13, 2011

Dttl_woman walkingAre you looking for your next growth area? What are your plans to beat your competition? Come to think of it, what business exactly are you in? If your answer to any of these questions isn’t talent, then you are running the risk of being left behind. Why? Because growth and competitive advantage will come from innovation and creativity in the 21st century.

As John Hagel III, co-founder of the Deloitte U.S. Center for the Edge, says, “companies must truly become talent-driven firms.” Yet most today are underutilizing, and often downright ignoring, half of their talent pool—their women. Or, put another way, investing in women—both as workers and as consumers—is one of the best levers for creating competitive advantage.

Let’s take women as workers—talented workers—first. Today’s economic realities—from the shrinking taxable workforce in many countries to the importance of critical-thinking, analytical, and decision-making skills in the digital economy—underlie why talent is becoming the most valuable resource for nations and businesses alike. And women not only make up roughly half of the workforce in most of the world, but they are graduating college at higher rates than men in many countries. The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Index shows that the educational attainment gap has almost disappeared. But that is not translating into women being retained, developed, and advanced in the workforce. In fact, those numbers are dismal. There has been no change in the percentage of women in senior management among the Fortune 500® for almost a decade1. In Europe, where women make up more than half of college graduates and 45 percent of the workforce, they are a measly 11 percent of corporate executives2. These numbers mean that the pipeline to the top either leaks women—or that they are getting stuck.

Either way, it’s not good for the bottom line. Churn has a steep price: a conservative estimate of the cost of turnover for knowledge workers ranges is 200 percent of salary. But that may not be the biggest cost to your business. Evidence is mounting that gender diversity (and diversity in general) at the top delivers better business results.  Today, Fortune 500® companies in the top quartile when it comes to women’s representation on their boards outperform those in the lowest quartile by at least 53 percent on return on equity3.  And in Europe, of 89 publicly traded companies with a market capitalization of over 150 million pounds, those with more women in senior management and board members had, on average, more than a 10 percent higher return on equity than those companies with the least percentage of women in leadership4.  Women bring their experiences, perspectives, and approaches to decision making, making it more robust.

But that’s not all—because the other half of creating competitive advantage is to understand the power of women as consumers. Women are not a niche group—they are the market. Already, women control roughly US$20 trillion of total consumer spending globally, and that number is predicted to rise to US$28 trillion by 20145.  And women either make or influence up to 80 percent of buying decisions, on everything from appliances to cars and medical services6.  This is not a consumer segment that businesses can afford to ignore—and those with more women in management are in a stronger position to understand and market to this population.

The bottom line—and that is what this is all about—is that there is a Gender Dividend to be reaped by any company or country  that invests in women. But that doesn’t mean businesses are doing all they can to take advantage of it. For many, promoting women is still a “soft” issue—not a business imperative. They have not figured out the cold, hard fact that not capitalizing on women as workers and consumers is holding their businesses back. Which means that if you build your business case for the Gender Dividend, it just might help you beat the competition.

(This column is adapted from our new study The Gender Dividend: Making the business case for investing in women.

Anne Weisberg is a Director of Talent, Deloitte Services LP, in the U.S. member firm and co-author of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce.

1 - “2005 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors of the Fortune 500 Shows 10-Year Trend of Slow Progress and Persistent Challenges,” Catalyst press release, 29 March 2006.

2 - “More women in senior positions: Key to economic stability and growth,” European Commission, January 2010

3 - Lois Joy, Ph.D., Director, Research, and Nancy M. Carter, Ph.D., Vice President, Research, at Catalyst Inc.; Harvey M. Wagner, Ph.D., and Sriram Narayanan, Ph.D., The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Corporate Boards (Catalyst, 2007)

4 - McKinsey, Women Matter

5 - Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, The Female Economy, Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2009, see also Sylvia Ann Hewlett, “Why Women are the Biggest Emerging Market,” Harvard Business Online (March 8, 2010)

6 - See e.g., The Economist, A Guide to Womenomics (April 12, 2006); Sandra Lawson and Douglas Gilman, The Power of the Purse: Global Equality and Middle Class Spending, (Goldman Sachs Global Research Institute, 2009)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Dear Anne

Thanks for this post and I also read with interest Dani's comment.

Nevertheless, I see a cultural difference, with US boards mainly comprising non-executives whereas a British board will almost always include all the key executive management.

As well, as long as women are kept out of those key operational roles because a career break or a decision to take a less demanding role for a period is deemed to disqualify them, progress will be very restricted.

I do hope that companies will continue to focus on diversity in their top management whereby having more women on the team is most certainly important.

Thanks for sharing.

the timing of this post is so apropos, as I've made this issue my own and just finished responding to a post on First Friday about much of the same topic.
I've followed the work of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force from the beginning and said back then that the institutional initiatives (flex time, telecommuting, family leave, emergency childcare, etc) were necessary but not sufficient to help women resist the pull (or the push) away from the workforce at a developmentally critical phase of their careers. In fact 4 + years after the recommendation and implementation of these initiatives, the numbers hadn't budged. As an executive coach with expertise in this area and a unique talent development perspective, I know how much of success is based on the "soft skills" which only now are being recognized as financially, organizationally and professionally beneficial.
In fact, I still contend that relying on institutional initiatives and/or sponsors without also developing other critical self-management skills (like powerful negotiating, setting boundaries, organically building a sphere of influence, rainmaking, etc)is still in the "give a woman a fish" category. Much more important to teach her how to fish so she can take responsibility for her own success and withstand the slings and arrows of these mostly male-dominated industries. No doubt, major hurdles still exist but now we have results on our side and a handful of enlightened leaders who understand the business case for having more women involved at executive and board levels.
Would love to discuss offline.
Thanks so much for this important work!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.