Gender equality is a journey: 6 lessons learned from Accenture

It’s 2024, and we’d like to believe that, by now, most organizations are doing more to acknowledge the significance of International Women’s Day than ordering in some cupcakes with pink frosting. Yet few organizations stand out the way Accenture does when it comes to real commitment to gender equality in the workplace.

Given Tercera’s focus on empowering and investing in the people who make technology work — all people — diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a topic that is near and dear to us. So, it was a privilege to sit down with Zoe Kibbey, Associate Director of Accenture’s DEI efforts, to learn more about the company’s DEI journey.

Accenture is regularly ranked as one of the World’s Best Workplaces, and ranks number one on Refinitiv’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Index (for the fourth time in six years). These achievements don’t happen by accident. Accenture has been focused on DEI since the mid 1990s, and when it comes to gender equality in IT consulting and professional services, they are often held up as the gold standard.

The following takeaways offer insight and advice to any people-centric service organization looking to differentiate itself based on the quality of its talent and human capital.

1. Set goals, not quotas.

While Accenture is a leader in gender equality, it is also a meritocracy. Accenture makes decisions about its people, including hiring and advancement decisions, based on an individual’s merit, and not the person’s identity. The company’s equality goals are based on real metrics and numbers, but they are advanced and achieved by removing systemic barriers that hurt diversity and harm inclusion. The organization intervenes where needed to ensure the right people with the right skill and the right levels of performance have every opportunity to gain access to and then move up in the organization.

2. Go public with your goals and disclose your progress.

Accenture formally put itself out there in 2017 when it announced its goal to reach gender parity across the global talent base. The company is looking to achieve 50/50 gender balance across all roles globally by 2025, with 30% of managing directors being women within the same timeframe. It is well on its way to these goals, and already exceeding them in some cases.

Accenture diversity metrics show progress across the board

Broadcasting such goals, and being fully transparent about disclosing progress, keeps the goal front and center and ensures accountability. Nothing supercharges an internal effort more than knowing the world is watching.

There are a number of external organizations and indices, such as the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index (GEI), that can serve as guideposts and benchmarks for diversity goals. They can also provide insights into where DEI gaps may exist to help focus efforts. Below is an excerpt from Bloomberg’s DEI Reporting Framework highlighting areas where they measure performance.

Categories for Bloomberg's DEI framework

3. Be aggressive, but realistic with goals.

While we hold Accenture up as a beacon of what’s possible with the right commitment, it’s important for companies to think through what will be required to achieve their specific goals and not just pull numbers that sound good out of the air. Leaders should understand where they are starting and what is possible in a given period of time. Accenture completed robust modeling to determine their goals, looking carefully at the investments in recruiting, retention, and internal advancement strategies that would be required to achieve different levels of gender equality before making the commitment.

In our discussion, Zoe reiterated that companies need to remember the organization will grow, the economy will fluctuate, and technology will evolve during the timeframe the company sets for its goals. You won’t be making DEI progress in a vacuum, so keep these forces in mind when considering what can be achieved.

4. Embed DEI goals into the business’ broader purpose.

It’s important that any DEI goal be more than a side gig. For it to be a priority, it should tie back to a company’s business goals and advance the organization’s larger agenda. In Accenture’s case, the company understands that it needs the best talent in the world to achieve its mission, which is delivering on the promise of technology and human ingenuity. People with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different lived experiences are key to innovation and delivering value for all stakeholders around the world.

The company – like so many others – also knows that having diverse teams can have a positive impact on financial performance. Asset Management firm BlackRock recently released a study that shows companies with the most diverse workforces outperform those with the least diverse workforces by an average of 29% a year.

5. Take a holistic approach.

Zoe says she’s always asked about the one thing that is most important to DEI success and it’s a question she can’t answer. It’s never just one program that drives progress but rather it’s the collective impact of all that a company is doing to create a workplace culture that brings a diverse group of people in and helps them grow and thrive once they are there.

Accenture’s diversity programs are broad reaching – from how it handles recruiting and interviews, to a new Allies in Action program the company put in place last year to help people learn what it means to practice inclusive behaviors and be a role model. It’s not just employee programs either. Accenture is well known for its Supplier Inclusion & Diversity Program to incorporate diverse businesses into its supply chain.

According to Zoe, it comes down to a cultural commitment, leadership, and ownership of issues that make the workplace better for everyone, not just women. Simple but powerful things like respecting people for who they are, fostering a culture that values psychological safety, and supporting family commitments.

6. Play the long game and don’t stop when you get there.

Gender equality, or progress on any DEI initiative for that matter, won’t happen overnight. Accenture developed its first gender equality strategy back in 1995 and made its goals public seven years ago, several years before Julie Sweet became the company’s CEO and lent her own passion to the initiative. And they are still on a journey.

Below is an excerpt from Accenture’s 2023 360 degree value report, showing their progress over the last three years of reporting. While a two percent increase in women in the workplace from 2021 to 2023 might not seem impressive, it is when you consider that in 2023 Accenture employed more than 733,000 people and brought in $64 billion in revenue.

Accenture 2023 Diversity Metrics

Accenture has months left to achieve its long-term gender equality goals and is on track to hit its targets. That in no way means the company will be winding down its DEI programs once these numbers are achieved. The 50/50 gender parity goal is an overall global objective. Some regions will outperform others. There will be key areas where additional effort and focus is needed to get closer to the 50/50 mark.

My take

The IT services sector still has a long way to go when it comes to equal representation for women (and other underrepresented groups) – especially at the most senior levels of an organization. But firms like Accenture offer both inspiration and a solid blueprint for how services leaders can start making progress in their own organizations.

At the very least start measuring where you’re at today. If that’s not where you want to be – which, let’s be honest, few companies are – then set a goal and make it public. That’s what you can do to celebrate International Women’s Day. Save the pink cupcakes for when you hit that goal.

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