Motorcyclists drive past an Ikea store in Hyderabad, India, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg..© 2022 Bloomberg Finance LP
When you’re the only woman on a leadership team, it can be hard to feel included during team-building events. Especially when the men spend time in the sauna.
Ulrika Biesèrt, who leads human resources for Ingka Group, whose core business IKEA Retail operates nearly 400 IKEA stores, recalls a time much earlier in her career when she attended an offsite where the group of nine other male leaders visited a sauna. She was the only woman on a distribution center management team.
“I needed to go out and sit outside on a chair when they were doing the team building,” she recalls, now 26 years later. “The worst part was that I was not even reacting”— Biesèrt didn’t think much of it because it was seen as normal at the time.
It wouldn’t be now. On Monday, the global retailer of flat-pack furniture and low-priced yet Scandanavia-chic housewares is announcing it has reached the rare feat of near-gender parity across its top leadership roles. Fourteen of its 31 country CEOs (45%) are now women; women also make up 56% of top retail management teams across its global footprint.
That’s up significantly from a decade ago, the company reported, when only 28% of country CEOs were women and its top retail management teams were just 35% women. (The group’s management, where five of 13 leaders are female, has a bit further to go.)
The figures reached that tipping point in recent years, as leaders like Susanne Pulverer was tapped to run the company’s India unit last year and, in January 2023, Doris Lan became CEO of Ingka’s Denmark operations. (IKEA is run as a franchise system, with Ingka Group being by far its largest, representing roughly 90% of IKEA sales, more than 170,000 employees and 379 stores.)
The International Labor Organization has said a balanced employment ratio is one where no more than 40% to 60% of employees are of the same sex. IKEA’s process of pushing toward gender equity started as early as 2002, when the company’s then-CEO set it as a priority, but started in earnest 10 years ago, Biesèrt says, when the company’s first IKEA Women Open Network meeting was held in Sweden with top leaders from across the company.
“We were really shaken by the fact that we were so not equal,” recalled Biesèrt in an interview with Forbes. A facilitator at the 2013 meeting helped jumpstart the process with “a little bit of shame that we—who are priding ourselves on our values—how come we are not better than this?” After the event, the company set a target to reach 50/50 gender balance within 10 years.
Biesèrt credits a range of factors, from involvement by the CEO to revamping all the company’s human resources processes to implementing bias training, pay reviews and new hiring rules. “It’s very systematic,” she says. “It’s not in bits and pieces … there was kind of a mind shift.”
Still, certain practices had impact. “One of the key factors, I think, was when we started measuring,” Biesèrt says. When leaders could see that gender balance “was one of the absolute top priorities” in their stated goals, they tied it to their performance metrics.
Another, she said, was getting beyond having only a token woman on a leadership team, or even two, but reaching critical mass that allowed others to see the diversity of female leaders. “When you have three or more you actually have more impact,” as it helps with “realizing that we are not fully the same.”
For top leadership positions, the company also requires that the final candidates for each job are always one male and one female leader, Biesèrt says. “You can’t only come with two men” to a final slate of candidates, she noted.
Pay is another factor: In 2021, the company began banning salary history questions across its operations, offering pay based on a job’s value rather than a woman’s ability to negotiate and helping avoid the entrenchment of past pay gaps. The company says it has also worked to reduce gaps in pay that cannot be explained by differences in experience or scope of work, cutting the “unexplained” gender pay gap in similar jobs from 8.04% in its 2020 fiscal year to 4.84% in 2022.
Finally, it may seem unsurprising that Sweden-based IKEA, which is known for generous parental leave for both men and women, has reached parity faster than many companies. And indeed, it does offer more in terms of parental leave in many countries—which could prompt more women and men to return to their jobs after becoming parents—than what is required by law.
In India, for instance, where there is no mandated paternity leave for men working for private firms, IKEA offers full salary and benefits for both women and men for 26 weeks. In the U.S., which has no federal requirement for paid parental leave, it offers up to 16 weeks for mothers and fathers, in addition to paid disability leave.
Biesèrt acknowledges the company’s Swedish roots are influential—but not the whole story. “We’re brought up as Swedes, but I think the starting point sits in our culture,” she says. “Being ‘for the many, by the many’—the many is both men and women.”
I am a Senior Editor at Forbes, leading our coverage of the workplace, careers and leadership issues.
Source: How IKEA Retail Reached Gender Balance Globally For Leadership Roles
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