Gender diversity slow because some companies see ‘HR issue’ instead of ‘business issue’: Accenture CEO

·3 min read

As the pandemic approaches its 20th month and continues to upend work across the economy, women remain "dramatically underrepresented" in the financial industry, especially in senior roles, according to a report released by McKinsey & Company on Thursday. 

Women surveyed by McKinsey acknowledged receiving some support and flexibility amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but they struggled with barriers to promotion and heightened care responsibilities at home compared to male colleagues, the report found.

In a new interview, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, the head of a consulting giant that works with more than three-quarters of Global Fortune 500 companies, told Yahoo Finance that slow progress on gender diversity at some companies springs from a lack of sustained commitment. 

Firms deliver results when they lend gender diversity goals the same importance as business objectives, she said.

"Too often, companies — and many companies come to us to talk about what to change — say that this is somehow an HR issue, as opposed to a business issue, which we all own," she says.

"Because there's a difference between a commitment, and being committed and an action plan," she adds. "What we find is that it's not about a lack of good intention. But the goals that are needed to be set are not always set in the same way that you set your revenue goals." 

The challenges that face women in the workforce have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, since caregiving and childcare tasks often fall primarily to women. As of March, one in four women were considering leaving the workforce amid COVID-19, as opposed to one in five men, a McKinsey study found in March.

Across corporate America, women hold 28% of senior-vice-president positions and 21% of C-suite positions, according to a different study released by McKinsey last year.

Accenture, which counts more than 57,000 workers across the U.S., employs a workforce made up of 60% men and 40% women, according to diversity statistics on its website.

The representation of women declines in senior roles at the company. Women make up about 28% of managing directors and 33% of executives, the statistics show.

Sweet acknowledged the difficulty of addressing gender diversity as the pandemic makes working life more difficult for women.

"This is a place where, while we're not making the progress that we'd like to make, and frankly, the pandemic set us back because of the very public issues, that in challenges of women, I am much more optimistic about not only the commitment across the globe, and we're in every market, but also the willingness to take actions," she says. 

Julie Sweet CEO of Accenture attends the Fortune Global Forum in Paris, France, November 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
Julie Sweet CEO of Accenture attends the Fortune Global Forum in Paris, France, November 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Sweet began her career as an attorney at the high-powered firm Cravath, Swaine, & Moore and later joined Accenture as a general counsel. In 2019, she became CEO.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Sweet described a shared emphasis on diversity as part of the relationship that Accenture forms with clients.

"We believe that we will all make progress on inclusion, diversity by working together," she says.

"It's actually a core part of our strategy," she adds. "We call it 360 degree value ... — to collaborate with our clients like joint employee resource groups [and] activities because we think it's a shared responsibility."

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