Walking the Talk in DE&I – a conversation with Stuart Maxwell

Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE

Stuart Maxwell

VP, Leadership, Learning and Talent, Kerry

Stuart Maxwell has been a champion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) from the outset, and a supporter of EDGE Certification® as an effective instrument to drive progress in this area.

Embedding DE&I in a company’s culture, performance management, leadership development and recruitment strategies, he says, can be a game changer: “It’s one of the big lessons I’ve learned over the years and would advocate for anyone embarking on a DE&I journey,” he explains. “If DE&I is kept separate from everything else, then no matter how loud the voice, you are not going to reach everybody you need to reach.”

Stuart believes in DE&I for the simple reason that “it is absolutely the right thing to do.” It is useful, however, that the desire ‘to do the right thing’ is also supported by hard evidence that it improves business performance: “It’s a clear differentiator for a business seeking to attract, engage and retain talent,” Stuart continues.

Matching DE&I expectations with reality

“Gen Y and Gen Z employees will often have multiple offers of jobs on the table and will decide which company to join based on what you are saying around sustainability and DE&I. And when they join a business, then the culture they experience once they’ve walked through the front door must match what they saw when looking through the shop window.”

A report published in 2023 by the management consultancy McKinsey & Company showed that the top quartile companies in terms of DE&I performance had a 39% greater likelihood of financial outperformance compared to their bottom-quartile peers: “It is quantifiable that companies with more diverse leadership teams are more successful,” Stuart says, “and they are also more innovative.

“Diverse companies are able to access the full talent pool, and that is increasingly important in a world where the market for talent is extremely competitive. It’s also important to run regular employee engagement surveys,” he continues.

“We knew that we were heading in the right direction when in an all-company engagement survey with an 80% response rate, 90% of employees responded that DE&I was having a positive impact on their employee experience. Reaching all employees is a key goal for DE&I practitioners.”

DE&I, Stuart says, is also becoming increasingly important to other stakeholders: “It’s a big issue now for Boards and investors, with much greater focus on representation and questions around how businesses are advancing their DE&I agenda.”

Validating progress with an independent benchmark

To validate progress in your DE&I journey, Stuart stresses the importance of an independent benchmark: “You shouldn’t be interested in paying to collect a little badge to put on your website,” he smiles. “You want to be able to benchmark yourselves against your peers with real, meaningful insight and an action plan for the future. That’s why I have always been an advocate of EDGE Certification®. EDGE sets the bar high and gives you clear feedback on what you will need to do to become best in class.”

Being part of the EDGE Certification® process supports organizations seeking to be included and improve their score ratings such as DJSI and Equileap. In both examples, EDGE Certification® contributes meaningfully to an organization’s overall score. As Diana van Maasdijk, Equileap’s co-founder says: ‘EDGE Certification® is a rigorous, independent assessment and a universally accepted methodology’.

But again, being included in such respected Indices is not the end of the journey: “It doesn’t mean you’re there but it’s nice recognition and it’s valued by your employees, the Board and your investors,” he adds.

Stuart is alive to the fact that DE&I is being politicized in some quarters, causing some organizations to reconsider their priorities.  He advises that firms should continue their journeys as it is even more important in such environments that all employees feel that they are supported in bringing their whole selves to work. It can also be a clear differentiator in the talent market. Again, he stresses that senior buy-in is essential: “The CEO sets the expectation, and the executives line up behind it,” he adds.

Understanding the real meaning of diversity

Stuart believes that breaking down internal barriers is a big step and removing invisible structures and mindsets that can get in the way of progress. It leads to the acceleration of female talent, not just through external recruitment, but also by promoting from within: “Of course, there are some people in an organization who will always say there is a glass ceiling, but I’d like to think that even where there are some ceilings left, you can make some fairly big cracks in them,” he jokes.

So what advice would Stuart give to his peers currently grappling with the DE&I conundrum? “As I mentioned earlier, don’t keep it as a separate initiative, it has to be part of your culture and lead your core behaviours, embedded in everything you do.”

He also says to trust the data: “Some of what you will do will be spreadsheet-based, and you need to analyze the data that is presented to you.

“If you have set an aspirational target for your organization to achieve gender parity in your senior leadership that doesn’t mean that every single business unit or division has to reach a gender-balanced representation. Some may be higher and some lower, and it has to be achieved in a way that is sustainable for your organization. You also need to explore what those roles are, and not just a Head of HR or General Counsel. It’s important to target P&L roles, for example, as a better benchmark for achieving ‘true’ diversity.

“The point is, understand your numbers and the story behind those numbers. A 30% representation in one part of the business or in certain roles could be better than 40% in another.”

Stuart also warns about ‘fixing’ quotas simply through recruitment, a point he touched upon earlier: “Insisting on a diverse candidate slate for new jobs is great, but who are you promoting and who are you retaining? That should be an important area of focus. Everyone who comes into your business wants to be judged on their skills and contribution and feel that their contribution is recognized. They also want to come to work and express their true selves. If they can do that, then business success follows.”

Listening is also important: “You do need to keep listening and communicating if something isn’t landing,” he continues. “Sometimes what you say may not be resonating with a particular audience, and so you need to challenge why that might be and make a judgement call.”

Stuart believes that people can nearly always do more than you think they can, and more than they think they can themselves. Part of his job has always been about getting the best out of everyone; it’s a personal mission: “I try and help pull away the barriers, break the ceilings, and instil confidence in people such that they can fulfil their full potential. It’s that mindset that permeates all of my decisions.

“Walk the talk, because if you’re advocating what people should be doing but not doing it yourself, then it invalidates the advice and guidance you are giving. You might be the best HR professional in the world, but if you’re not an inclusive leader yourself, you won’t achieve what you want to achieve. Look in the mirror.

“If you’ve got great people doing great things, you’ll be a successful company.”

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Commitment to DE&I Requires ‘Tangible Proofs’ of Progress


Author: Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE

During the pandemic, there was a noticeable shift in attitudes towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) linked to an organization’s commitment.

It was an unprecedented moment where you could sense that all the most important stakeholder groups – including existing and potential employees, customers, business partners and investors – were demanding that their organization, regardless of size or location, show commitment to the values of DE&I.

While it is true, as I have written previously, that DE&I is in danger of becoming irreversibly politicized, and that recent political conversations relating to the topic have undoubtedly had a negative impact, today I am sensing that the tide is once again shifting in our favour.

Organizations and their stakeholders are becoming more enthusiastic about demonstrating their commitment to the values and benefits that DE&I deliver. They want to see organizations who they work for, or are invested in, visibly, credibly and genuinely embrace an equitable and inclusive workplace.

This is especially true of ‘new’ talent; Gen Zs are looking for ‘tangible proofs’ of commitment, action and results and need to be assured that their potential employer is an employer where their talent will be allowed to flourish, and their contribution and skills appreciated.

In the news recently was a report from the European Union’s securities watchdog (the ESMA) that mandated that a fund that has any environmental, social or governance (ESG) related words in its name must have at least 80% of assets that meet ESG objectives in accordance with the binding elements of its stated investment strategy.

“The objective of the guidelines is to ensure that investors are protected against unsubstantiated or exaggerated sustainability claims in fund names, and to provide asset managers with clear and measurable criteria to assess their ability to use ESG or sustainability-related terms in fund names,” ESMA said in a statement.

In simple terms, it is a protection against greenwashing, and for both investors and market regulators, ESG remains an important focus. DE&I is of course an important component of the ‘S’ within ESG. Now there is a movement where, because of the increasing interest of all the stakeholders, there is an increasing need to go from self-reporting towards ‘limited assurance’ or even ‘independently verified’ claims on where a company stands on DE&I.

I think that now, more than any other time since the pandemic, is the moment for companies to restate why they are committed, what they are doing to honour their commitment, and how they can  prove that their commitment is being translated into actions that are making a meaningful difference.

This return to a DE&I mindset is being driven by the younger generation, by market regulators and by sustainability minded investors. In looking for commitment, they are also looking for organizations whose claims can be substantiated, which is where certain voluntary market-based instruments – such as EDGE Certification® – can give visible proof of credible progress. They are also the instruments that prove to be the most effective at the intersection between business and society because they bring objective measurements and standards and independent verification in areas that are not traditionally seen as very ‘special’.

My mentor and colleague Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of Ikea Switzerland from 2010 until 2019 and independent Board Member of a number of leading publicly listed companies, sums up the current trend succinctly: ‘to demonstrate commitment you have to mean it, you have to do it, you have to measure it and then you have to talk about it!’

With the business case for DE&I long-since proven, organizations needed to provide tangible, visible proofs that they not only believe in DE&I, but that they were making progress in closing the equity gap.

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7 Solutions to Address Gender Inequality in the Workplace

Awareness events like International Women’s Day, celebrated a month ago on March 8, help shed light on the status of women’s struggle for true equality in the workplace.

Despite the evolution of women’s roles in the workplace since the United Nations began observing IWD almost fifty years ago, many women continue to navigate environments originally designed for and by men, facing systemic biases both overt and subtle. While legislation mandating equal pay represents progress, it alone is insufficient for fostering truly equitable workplaces.

There’s a critical need for the principles celebrated on IWD to be integrated and normalized throughout the year, ensuring that efforts for a truly equitable workplace aren’t confined to a single day but are a continual, evolving pursuit.

In 2024, it should go without saying that striving for gender equality inside and outside the workplace is our collective moral obligation. No one should suffer from a lack of opportunity or an inferior quality of life because of their gender.

In our experience supporting organizations through the process of tackling gender inequality in their workplaces, this is an earnestly held belief for many leaders. But the process of turning this belief into measurable action requires a holistic, data-led strategy.

For 14 years, we have empowered organizations to build DE&I policies and practices that:

  • Increase the share of female employees in leadership positions
  • Develop internal mentorship and development programs to aid women’s progression
  • Recruit, develop, retain and promote female talent
  • Measure, report on and close their gender pay gaps
  • Obtain and progress through the levels of the world’s leading Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) certification

Here are seven steps organizations can take towards addressing gender inequality in the workplace, with examples from the organizations we support.

1. Measure and report on pay equity

Pay equity is a necessary condition of a fair workplace. It is also something many organizations don’t realize they are struggling with.

Equileap’s 2024 Gender Equality Global Report found that of almost 4,000 companies, only 41 had successfully closed their gender pay gap and only 32 had achieved gender balance at all levels. Despite equal pay for equal work being a requirement in 100 countries worldwide, the gender pay gap still stands at 18% in the US and 13% in the EU.

Many people might find the existence of these inequities hard to believe – after all, 100 countries worldwide have legislation requiring equal pay for equal work, according to the World Bank. But these inequities are often created behind closed doors; during negotiations and decision-making processes for salary, bonuses, company shares, and other cash benefits.

With gender pay gap reporting becoming increasingly commonplace and stringent – including the EU’s new directive for pay transparency in 2023 – organizations that aren’t conducting regular gender pay gap assessments risk being penalized for pay inequities they didn’t know they had.

EDGE Empower® uses a proprietary framework to measure and report on the unexplained gender pay gap using a linear regression model. The EDGE Unexplained Gender Pay Gap Methodology reveals the difference in pay between men and women performing work of equivalent value that cannot be explained by factors other than gender.

We have been supporting the European Investment Fund (EIF)’s ambitions of becoming a more equitable organization since 2020 and, as part of these efforts, they have been conducting yearly gender pay gap assessments. These assessments have been instrumental in the EIF’s progression through the levels of EDGE Certification, exemplifying the impact of proactive measures in addressing gender inequality in the workplace..

“We are dedicated to conducting yearly gender pay gap assessments which cover base salaries, awards and other cash benefits using the regression analysis and under the responsibility of the HR department who also proactively communicate on the EIF’s commitment to ensure gender pay equity,” says Frédérique Schepens, Head of Human Resources at the EIF.

2. Set achievable targets

When we work with organizations to help find solutions to addressing gender inequality in their workplaces, there’s an element of education that goes into it. Often, this education is around target-setting. A common mistake that organizations make in their mission to be more equitable is being too ambitious.

Let us explain. If you were looking to improve the financial performance of your business, you wouldn’t say: “We want to be the most profitable company in our sector worldwide within 12 months” with no data to back up whether this is an achievable target.

Workplace gender equality is the same. While enthusiasm for gender equality is always appreciated, simply deciding to become a more equitable organization does little to help organizations get there. You need to understand your current situation and benchmark against competitors, then set realistic targets and develop a strategy for making them a reality.

As Janet P. Pope, North America CSR Director at Capgemini, puts it: “The process provided by EDGE allowed us to create a benchmark against our competitors and really examine where we had successes and opportunities to improve. The recommendations provided by EDGE helped us elevate conversations and create better strategies that get to the root cause of how to grow gender balance across levels. In the US, we transitioned from a broad approach to a strategic focus on actions that would accelerate impact.”

Similarly, we have been working with the International Monetary Fund since 2017. Their long-term efforts to address gender inequality have seen them progress through the levels of DE&I certification and increase the share of women in senior management from 25% to 37%. At the Executive Board level, the share of female Executive Directors has risen 11% – from 8% to 17% – since 2019.

3. Develop your female workforce

Representation at senior levels is one of the most important matters an organization should tackle to address gender inequality in the workplace. Research from McKinsey & Company shows that companies with the greatest representation of women on executive teams had a 39% greater likelihood of financial outperformance compared to companies in the bottom quartile of gender diversity.

However, recruiting a diverse workforce can seem daunting. Many organizations don’t know where to begin.

The answer is: begin with your existing workforce. Female employees often have a harder time accessing mentorship and building relationships with senior figures who can help them advance in their career. More worryingly, their efforts frequently go unrecognized.

A 2022 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Sloan Management School found that despite women receiving higher performance ratings on average, they received 8.8% lower ratings for ‘potential’. As a result, women were 14% less likely to be promoted compared to their male colleagues.

Putting the onus on women to advocate for their own career development is therefore an insufficient strategy and does little to remove the systemic barriers restricting female talent. If men’s invitation to progress is implicit, women’s invitations must be explicit.

Several of the organizations we work with have introduced mentorship programs as part of their long-term strategy to eliminate gender equality, such as AXA IM’s Emerging Female Talent program or the Inter-American Development Bank’s Emerging Women Leaders program, which has amassed more than 280 graduates since it was introduced.

“Our EDGE Certification® has also helped us strengthen our platforms and resources for women employees to succeed,” comments Ria Jordan, former Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisor at Inter-American Development Bank. “The women who have taken advantage of these platforms understand that it is time to change the diversity among our leadership teams and have demonstrated a dedication towards fostering new forms of leadership and empowerment within the organization.”

4. Un-bias your processes

One of the hardest things to do for any individual or organization in recognizing and addressing gender inequality in a workplace is to take a hard look at what barriers we have unintentionally put in place.

We all exist in a world where men have historically been given more professional opportunities than women, where employees are 72.3% more likely to have a CEO named David than a CEO who is female and if someone asks you to picture a homemaker, the person in your mind’s eye is usually a woman.

We all have gender biases – including women – and when we’re placed in decision-making roles, this bias can unconsciously reinforce gender inequality.

An organization’s processes are therefore likely to have some element of gender bias. Part of being committed to gender equality is unbiasing these processes and ensuring your workforce – particularly your decision-makers – are equipped to spot and resolve the signs of bias in themselves and others.

“What we consider to be particularly important is awareness of the unconscious bias we all have, which is why we launched unconscious bias training,” says Susanne Jud, Chief People Officer at Ringier AG. To make their processes more inclusive, Ringier A.G began holding workshops and establishing working groups to ensure that employees’ voices were taken seriously and to sensitize their workforce to issues of diversity.

The European Investment Fund has also been tackling unconscious bias in their recruitment processes.

As Frédérique Schepens explains: “In a bid to eliminate bias from the very start of the recruitment process, in 2021 HR drafted a short guide for recruiting managers to encourage them to see past their unconscious bias. This guidance is now systematically shared with hiring managers during the launch of each recruitment campaign. In addition, there is a clear emphasis on the need for the list of candidates to contain sufficient gender and nationality diversity in proportion to the overall list of applicants. In the case where the balance is not respected, HR may propose a re-publication with an aim of attracting a more diverse selection of candidates.”

5. Allow flexible working

Being committed to tackling workplace gender inequality means understanding that women face inequalities beyond the workplace and having policies in place that support them. Despite decades of progress on gender roles in relationships, women are still usually the primary caregivers for children and other family members and perform the majority of unpaid household labor.

Some estimates put the average amount of unpaid labor and care provided by women at more than double that of men. As a result, working mothers are 23% more likely to experience burnout than working fathers.

Flexible work allows mothers and women with other caring responsibilities greater work-life balance and frees up both time and money in their days that would’ve otherwise been spent commuting. It also creates potential for their partners to take on more household labor and caring duties and starts to redress the imbalance between male and female colleagues, allowing women the opportunity to perform better at work.

UNICEF was the first UN agency to start working with EDGE in 2018, and we have since helped them progress through the levels of DE&I certification. In late 2020, they introduced a system to capture data from exit interviews, which highlighted that many families had no access to childcare support. This prompted them to increase workplace flexibility.

Similarly, Neil Carr, President of Dow Europe, Middle East, Africa and Europe says: “Employers the world over are losing the critically valuable contributions of their female workforce, and we’re losing it to the other critical role women predominantly occupy: That of mother and of household and family caregiver. Now is the time to act because the professional workforce thrives on the contributions and diverse perspectives of women. We perform at our best when women have a seat at the table.”

6. Implement equal parental leave

Equal parental leave is important not just for the wellbeing of the child and so both parents have time to bond with their newborn, it also alleviates some of the burden placed on women as they recuperate from childbirth and creates a precedent for the equal division of household labor moving into parenthood.

A new mother’s partner taking parental leave is associated with a 34% increase in the likelihood of a woman being physically ready to return to work.

Working with EDGE has helped several global organizations pinpoint and redress inequities in their parental leave policies. As Ria Jordan, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisor at Inter-American Development Bank, tells us:

“One of the areas identified for development during the first EDGE certification process was the inequity in our parental leave policies. At that time, the IDB Group had separate policies for men and women (maternity and paternity leave). We recognized, then, that our policy was not gender-inclusive and that we needed to focus on both men and women equally.”

“Moreover, we saw an opportunity to create greater work-life integration for all employees with caregiving responsibilities regardless of gender. The decision to revise our parental leave policy was and continues to be a visible transformative action inside the IDB Group in support of all genders.”

Other partner organizations that are actively looking for solutions to addressing gender inequality in the workplace and encouraging fathers to take full parental leave include the European Investment Fund, the International Finance Corporation, AXA IM and Banco BHD León.

7. Consider issues outside of the workplace

Gender inequality has consequences far beyond the workplace. Similarly, resolving these inequalities can have a positive ripple effect that uplifts employees, customers and the communities connected to your business.

This is something that the Inter-American Development Bank has a clear understanding of.

“The IDB Group finances its operations by issuing bonds in the international capital markets and the financial rating agencies are those that assign us our credit ratings, which have been triple-A since 1962,” explains Ria Jordan. “Increasingly, these rating agencies are looking at social elements such as diversity as a component for our qualifications.”

Ria notes that positive rating scores can help lower borrowing costs for their clients in Latin America and the Caribbean, which have been facing one of the worst economic crises in their history. These lower borrowing costs will help these countries focus on economic recovery and ultimately support gender equality.

The IDB Group has also developed the Vision 2025 agenda supporting economic recovery in Latin America and the Caribbean. This agenda includes the “Women Growing Together In The Americas” program in partnership with Accenture, Facebook, Mastercard, NEC, Visa and Walmart, which supports women-led micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), integrating their businesses into regional value chains and foreign trade.

Other EDGE partner organizations are considering the crossover between their female workforce’s personal and professional lives through hybrid work models, digitalization and, in the case of UNICEF, allowing staff deployed in humanitarian emergencies to rotate to family duty stations.

“Issues of gender and diversity are very much embedded into countries’ social fabrics and local cultures, and to achieve progress we have to consider local dynamics and histories carefully. While UNICEF’s top leadership is committed to gender equality and DEI in general, we need to ‘trickle down’ that commitment into daily behaviors everywhere,” comments Geeta Narayan, UNICEF’s Principal Advisor on Organizational Culture.

Tackling gender inequality can be a daunting challenge. That doesn’t mean we should let ourselves be overwhelmed by it. There are actionable, measurable and industry-proven steps your organization can take to minimize gender inequality both inside and outside of your workplace.

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Successful Organizations Who Lead in DE&I Have A New ‘Superpower’


Author: Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE

I shared a platform recently with Kevin Murphy, Partner at Bain & Company and an acknowledged expert in change. In the summer of 2021, Kevin was the co-author of an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing ‘Change Power’ – which was then a new concept to enable organizations to measure, quantify and build their ability to change.

What was especially important about organizations that had ‘high’ change power, he noted at the time, was that they had ‘better financial performance, stronger culture and leadership, and more engaged and inspired employees’.

Permanent change is the only permanent thing that exists in this im-permanent world and having the power to adapt to unforeseen risks when the unthinkable happens is the trait of an organization that is sustainably successful. ‘Changeability’ was and is, Kevin says, a new ‘superpower’.

In devising its new ‘Change Power Index’, Bain looked at nine different elements that drive changeability, and categorized them into three segments: leading change; teaming for change; and organizing change. What was most important, however, was ‘to find the critical few’ elements within these segments that could have the biggest impact. This in turn led to a closer look at the underlying drivers of change power.

What was especially intriguing was the intersectionality between ‘change’ and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I). DE&I correlates with all nine of the elements identified, with the strongest statistical connection to the element of ‘purpose’. When an organization can unify around shared commonalities, leaders are better able to align and advance meaningful organizational change.

In the three years since the article was published, and the ‘Change Power Index’ created, Kevin has identified an even stronger and more tangible connection to DE&I. Among the companies given the highest DE&I score by Glassdoor, change power is 80% higher than their competitors. Bain looked at companies with high change power and similarly high DE&I scores and the impact those strengths had on overall performance and results. The findings are significant.

Every 0.1-point improvement in DE&I ratings for a company (on a 5-point scale) was linked to a corresponding 13% increase in the absolute change power score on average. Previous research had found change power to be associated with a two-times improvement in EBIT margins, two-times in total shareholder return, and up to three-times in revenue growth. CEO and senior leadership ratings were also up by a quarter (25%).

“Causality,” Kevin says, “is difficult to prove, but the relationship here is hard to ignore. Doing DE&I well correlates with better change power, which in turn is linked not only to company performance but also leadership and employee engagement.”

Based on our experience of working with global organizations who are EDGE Certified, the results confirm something we have long suspected: organizations who embrace DE&I perform better than those who do not across virtually every measure. It supports their compliance with relevant legislation and reporting and gives them the competitive advantage.

EDGE has been committed to strengthening the business case for investing and continuing to invest in DE&I from the very beginning. We are now extending our partnership with Bain to work with five EDGE Certified organizations to complete the assessment for the Change Power Index and correlate the results with their DE&I performance. In doing so, we can provide them with ‘a clear, actionable view’ of the factors that determine an organization’s ability to transform itself when it counts.

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Women Need A Fairer ‘Cut’ of the Investment Slice


Author: Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently held an exhibition focusing on ‘Women Dressing Women’ and a celebration of 70 of the most successful female fashion designers of the 20th Century. It included the likes of Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet and Gabrielle Chanel, along with contemporary designs by Iris van Herpen, Anifa Mvuemba, Simone Rocha and Tory Burch.

The French have the word ‘couture’ from which a ‘couturiere’ is a seamstress (or needlewoman) whereas a ‘couturier’ is the dressmaker, creator and master. It could be an indictment of the world we live in today.

Fashion designers, whether women or men, have the same skills and perform the same task but are seen as fundamentally different in the way they are described. It is the men who have, historically, been able to access the capital that has led to their names emblazoned on the fashion house door, while the women have been largely anonymous, other than in exceptional circumstances.

It’s a familiar story, and a scenario that is played out across many different sectors in which women work. The fact that women consistently fail to secure levels of funding comparable to their male peers is borne out by the facts. PitchBook’s ongoing analysis of venture capital deals highlights some sobering statistics.

Companies in the US and Europe founded solely by women accounted for a fraction of the total capital invested in venture-backed start-ups. The numbers, the report claims, have been trending upwards since 2021 and 2022 saw the creation of several women-led funds, incubators for female founders and more new companies. Any ‘positive’ news, however, needs to be tempered by volumes and values that still remain stubbornly low:

In 2023:

  • US – 7.0% of VC deals went to a female (co-) founder, and 19.3% went to female & male founded start ups
  • Europe – 5.2% of VC deals went to a female (co-) founder, and 20% went to female & male founded start-ups
  • US – 2.0% of VC capital went to a female (co-) founder, and 21.2% went to female & male founded start ups
  • Europe – 1.8% of VC capital went to a female (co-) founder and 18.5% went to female & male founded start ups

In terms of venture capital deal flow for female (co-)founded companies:

  • US – Capital invested $33.4b (compared to highest in 2021 of $61.7)
  • Europe – Capital invested €10.6b (compared to highest in 2021 of €17.2bn)
  • US – Deal volume – 3,371 (compared to highest in 2021 of 4,968)
  • Europe – Deal volume – 2,333 (compared to highest in 2021 of 3,332)

The reasons why women fail to receive their fair share of investment is a moot point, but it cannot be coincidence that women are still deeply underrepresented in the world of venture capital. According to All Raise, only 14.3% of decision-makers at US-based venture capital firms with over $25 million dollars in assets under management are women.

Levelling the playing field will not only benefit female entrepreneurs; it also benefits wider economies. BCG estimates that global GDP would rise by 3% to 6% annually if women entrepreneurs were to receive the same investment as their male counterparts. That would boost the global economy by up to $5 trillion annually.

Fixing the funding gap will require a redesign of the VC model to not only address the prevailing presence of gender bias but also to overturn the scarcity of female investors who sit on fund boards, lead deals or who ultimately write the investment cheques. And there are five trillion good reasons for doing so.

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Competitive Advantage, Commitment & Compliance


Author: Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE

There is a well-known saying that what goes around, comes around. And in the 15 years since our organization was founded, that is precisely what is now happening with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I).

In the beginning, various commentators and reports from organizations such as McKinsey & Co said that investment in DE&I was important because it made business sense. A movement that was once in the social space had moved into the business space, and as an organization, we spoke about how DE&I could give you the competitive advantage.

The conversation about DE&I being a smart business decision soon moved to a conversation about commitment. With the business case now solidly engrained, organizations needed to provide tangible, visible proofs that they not only believed in DE&I, but that they were making progress in closing the equity gap.

Today, however, the topic has matured, and the benefits to businesses and organizations are supported by the facts. But with the business case and the moral case in place, there started to be the need for the legal case and another ‘C’ – compliance.

The DE&I topic had gained such importance that it came to the attention of the regulators. Viewed positively, this attention shows the success of the relevance of DE&I in business and society, but it comes with its challenges.

In Europe, the EU started by putting in place its Pay Transparency Directive and Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), requiring organizations to disclose relevant information in agreed detail. In the US, however, the ruling by the Supreme Court of the US in relation to affirmative action left some to question whether employer DE&I programs in America could ever survive.

As the EEOC Commissioner Andrea Lucas said: ‘Poorly structured voluntary diversity programs pose both legal and practical risks for companies. Those risks existed before the Supreme Court decision. Now they may be even higher.’

The Supreme Court speaks to companies in the US about being able to pursue their DE&I goals within ‘legally permissible ways’. But what is considered ‘legally permissible’ is not clearly defined. And where the risk of litigation is too great some businesses may believe that the safer option is to do nothing at all. Not pursuing DE&I, however, will have significant drawbacks for businesses and society.

The EU has got it right and has taken a much wiser approach than the US in helping to drive the transformation. Its focus has been on putting the legal instruments around it to enable it to happen. It’s not about punishment; it’s about enablement. This is far removed from the polarizing approach being taken in the US.

When we strip it right back, however, it is all about values. Do you believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly? If you do not, there is nothing more to be said. We can prove the financial benefits that a diverse workplace can bring; and we can force you in law. But we can’t change your heart and mind.

And there is something more troubling going on.

The concerning point is this: that DE&I is in danger of becoming irreversibly politicized. And that is a threat to any independent business or organization. For it means that the decisions you may wish to make for your organization are being restricted or manipulated by people outside of your control with a social agenda. And when political agendas start moving into economic agendas, then we have a problem.

Happily, while we still have voices such as JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon speaking at the World Economic Forum who freely declared himself to be fully committed to DE&I as a ‘full throated, red-blooded, patriotic, unwoke capitalist CEO,’ then there is still hope.

Whether it’s for competitive advantage, the desire to evidence commitment, or the stick of compliance, DE&I will always be important.

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A Stronger Business Case for DE&I in 2024


Author: Aniela Unguresan

Founder, EDGE


With the start of any New Year, there are predictions in terms of future business trends and where global CEOs need to focus their attention for the year ahead. Despite a current negative backlash in some quarters, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) remains as important, and perhaps even more important, than ever to delivering a sustainable business.

Various recent articles support the rationale for continuing to focus on DE&I as a pillar of future success. The first, based on a report from McKinsey & Company, sets out the most compelling business case yet that companies with diverse leadership teams continue to be associated with higher financial returns.

In its first edition of McKinsey & Company’s Diversity Matters, published in 2015, the top quartile companies in terms of DE&I performance had a 15% greater likelihood of financial outperformance versus their bottom-quartile peers; in its latest edition (November 2023), that figure has risen to 39%. What is especially interesting is that this steady upward trend is evidenced across multiple industries and regions, despite differing challenges, stakeholder expectations and ambitions.

What this means, put simply, is the upside for businesses who embrace DE&I as a key pillar for future success, and those who are less diverse in their thinking and in practice are getting more and more substantial over time.

New rules for ‘executive presence’ that embrace inclusivity

A second article, published in the Harvard Business Review, considers the new rules of what is known as ‘executive presence’. The author, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, considers the unspoken expectations of how a person in an executive position should sound, look and behave above and beyond their core skills and competencies.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett says that ‘executive presence’ is learnable and starts with knowing what behaviours are most valued in your organization and industry.

The author addresses the new world of ‘executive presence’ that includes the need for leaders to be more inclusive, not simply hiring and utilizing diverse talent, but also in ensuring they feel appreciated and supported. She also promotes the importance of authenticity, a trait that was of little or no importance 10 years ago but is now ‘newly prized’. To be seen as leadership material, executives are expected to reveal who they fundamentally are, not mimic some dated model.

Of course, gravitas and confidence in one’s abilities are key; being able to communicate well at all levels is similarly essential. For the first time ever, however, what is also considered essential is the capacity to be a diverse and inclusive leader. Put another way, whereas diversity has always mattered, now it matters even more as a key ingredient of leadership.

This finding is particularly encouraging. Billie Jean King, our EDGE Certification ambassador, has always said that it’s not leaders who choose their followers but rather followers who choose their leaders. We choose our leaders based on those qualities we ourselves want to be associated with. People from typically under-represented groups have traditionally felt that they needed to fit in – to dress or act in a particular way to gain acceptance. But this seems to be changing, and the necessity to conform appears to be fading away, which brings me back to the importance of embracing DE&I as a pillar of effective leadership and business success.

There will always be a diversity of opinions expressed on this matter. The President and Chief Executive of the Society of Human Resources Management in the US warned at the end of last year that DE&I policies within US companies will come under ‘full out attack’ in 2024. He suggests that organizations are already moving away from the value and importance of inclusivity ignited by the Black Lives Matter campaign.

But we continue to believe that DE&I does matter and will continue to matter in 2024 and beyond. It does make employees happier and more engaged. And most important of all, it does make businesses more sustainably successful.

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Wherever you are in your DE&I journey, whether at the very beginning or further along, EDGE Empower helps accelerate your progress and, through EDGE Certification, visibly prove it – applying the same discipline and rigour that you would to other business-critical missions. Learn more by booking a demo today.

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