Thursday, April 5, 2012

Five insights on Accenture and Women

Let me start at the end. After reviewing Accenture's global 2010-2011 Corporate Citizenship Report, recently released, I have been encouraged by Accenture's performance in gender diversity and advancing women. In many ways, I now believe that Accenture is showing leadership in providing a working environment which repects women's leadership and encourages women to advance.

But that's the end. The beginning is that I wasn't fully convinced of this after reading the Accenture Corporate Citizenship Report. Fortunately, I didn't stop at reading the report. I talked to Accenture. And this is the story. From the beginning.

I didn't have time to study Accenture's report in full (it's online and available as a download) but I  can never resist having a quick look at new report releases, so I did, just in passing, in-between things. Kinda by auto-pilot, my screen navigated to the page entitled "An inclusive, diverse environment".

 What stood out for me on this page is this:

My first reaction was this:

I was disappointed. For the past 5 years, female intake has been static at 34-36 percent. And the number of women senior executives has been static at 16-17 percent of the  senior executive workforce. Accenture has a Diversity Council and a Diversity Advisory Forum. There are leadership courses for women and a Women's Network. Accenture celebrates International Women's Day and in 2010, senior women participated in events in 146 locations across 35 countries, and in 2011,  events took place in  162 locations across 40 countries. Accenture conducts research every year on women in business, and has Women's Mentoring Programs which pair women with senior executives. Yet only 17 percent of the senior executives are women.

Accenture writes: "Increasing the representation of women and minorities among our leadership and welcoming all diverse employees will remain ongoing priorities for us." For the past 5 years, there appears to have been almost no increase of women representation in the senior executive ranks, despite this having been, apparently, a priority during these years.

It therefore seemed to me that, whatever Accenture has been doing for the past five years, it hadn't worked. Whatever Accenture plans to do for the next five years, has to be different. As I have said in the past, down with womenwashing!. "Fixing" women through leadership programs and women's networks doesn't create space for women to move into leadership positions.

Admittedly, Accenture has three women on the Board of Directors (out of a total of 10 non-management Directors) and 26% (5 out of 19) of its global Executive Leadership Team are women, which stacks up pretty well against most large companies and other companies in this sector. However, this just made me wonder why more women do not achieve senior executive status, and, apart from continuing the current initiatives, what Accenture plans to do differently to ensure that 17% could become more than 17% in the next few years.
But then......

I contacted Stacey Jones, who is Accenture's reporting contact point for Corporate Citizenship to see if there is perhaps an explanation that I am missing. I was totally impressed that Stacey came back to me immediately and we chatted by phone about what Accenture is doing to advance women. This is fabulous responsiveness, way beyond that which I experience from most companies (and I write to many!).

And then ......

From our conversation I understood that the "senior executives" is actually quite a small proportion of the overall management population at Accenture, as 17% is based on a group of some thousand within the company’s population of nearly 250,00 employees. The percentage of women overall in all management positions is much higher.

I also saw that the total workforce increased by 40% in the same 5 years, so the female workforce in 2007 was 61,200, while in 2011, it was over 80,000. This means that absolute numbers of women in senior positions has increased, even if the percentage figure does not reflect this. Maintaining this level, then, actually represents an achievement.

In addition, Stacey talked with passion about the programs to advance women at Accenture, especially the Diversity Council. "Diversity Council membership includes representation of our most senior male and female executives who have key leadership positions within the business. They play important roles in succession planning and sponsoring women to be groomed for leadership positions and ensuring they have the opportunity to advance. I have been here for 18 years, and I personally observe the investment of time and energy that goes into creating an inclusive culture that works for women."

All this was enough to convince me that there is genuine openness and encouragement for women's advancement at Accenture.

And so .....

I changed this post from what have been a rather critical post to one which highlights the value of stakeholder engagement. Here are my five insights:

Number Uno: As stakeholders, take the time to give feedback and ask questions.
Had I not fed back my observations to Accenture, I would have written an overly critical piece. Knowing what I do now, this would have been unjustified. I like being critical :), but I prefer to be fair.

Numero Two: As corporations, listen and be responsive to stakeholders.
My conversation with Accenture provided them with some value. Through my feedback, they were able to gain some new perspectives about how to present their performance in the Corporate Citizenship Report and a couple of insights into aspects of diversity management.

Number Trois: Things are not always what they seem.
It's always worth checking the facts and hearing the other side of the story. It's easy to jump to conclusions, and be judgmental, especially when the numbers seem straightforward. But just asking a simple question led to a great conversation and a much fuller understanding of the situation on my part. It's easy to be critical of companies. It's less easy to take the time and consider a more balanced view. 

Nombre Four: Transparency builds trust.
This is the whole point of Sustainability Reporting. Transparency opens you up to scrutiny. It exposes you to criticism and external interventions. As a result, I now have a much higher level of trust in Accenture's reporting, and corporate integrity, and Accenture has avoided what might have been some rather unpleasant publicity, and has gained new insights about their reporting.

Nummer Cinq: Make sure your Sustainability Report has an accessible contact point.
If the whole point of Sustainability Reporting is to engage stakeholders, make sure you publish an accessible contact point. It's so frustrating when you send an email and it ends up in a black hole. Accenture's timely and friendly response is a best practice example of stakeholder engagement and deserves a CSR Reporting Blog Double Cone Award.

The End.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via on Twitter or via my business website  (Beyond Business, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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