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Once Top-Heavy With Male Leaders, Avon Turns Things Around

BOSTON—It may be hard to believe that Avon, the company long associated with women’s cosmetics and a largely female salesforce, was once top-heavy with male leaders, suffered from a significant gender pay gap and was perceived as a place where career opportunities for women were lacking.

That’s what Leslie Mays found when she took over as Avon’s chief inclusion officer in 2011. And it’s the first thing she set about changing, Mays told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

“I recognized there was not a lot of evidence of diversity and inclusion commitment, nor resources in place” to achieve diversity, Mays said during a keynote address at the conference on Oct. 27. “There was nothing for us to latch on to.”

Change didn’t come overnight. But by enlisting Avon leaders’ support, using analytics to highlight diversity deficiencies and relying on thought leaders outside Avon, it took only 18 months to start to turn things around, said Mays.

After arriving at Avon, Mays was determined to make Avon the pre-eminent company for working women.

How did she do it?

First, she created an executive steering committee consisting of top Avon leaders: chief financial officers, executive vice presidents and chief human resource officers.

Second, she enlisted the help of Avon’s general managers in the six countries where the company did business.

Third, she gathered data. She discovered that more men than women were in “people manager” roles—positions that were more inclined toward promotions and pay increases. The company lacked a robust flexible-work policy and tended to pay women less than men. And while 98 percent of Avon’s salesforce consisted of women, those holding senior titles were mostly men—in all six countries.

“Now we had facts, we had data,” Mays said. “We were able to create a compelling picture of what was most needed for change.”

Armed with that data, and the support of senior leaders, Mays was determined to move talented women up the career ladder, get women in senior leadership roles, establish a flexible work policy and address pay equity.

And these goals have largely been realized. In the past two years, Mays said, Avon has placed far more women in critical roles, seen a significant increase in women leading sales teams, conducted a global pay equity analysis for every job in the company and launched a flexible work policy.

What are the lessons Mays has learned along the way?
• Expect resistance. Mays said the common refrain diversity officers can expect to encounter include: “Our business results are fine, why do we need to do anything?”; “I’ve lived and worked all over the world, I am diverse”; “I’ve never been discriminated against.”

• You can always get a leader’s attention if you can tell them—using hard data—something they don’t know about their company.

• Pick one or two of your biggest skeptics on the leadership team, convince them of the worth of your diversity plan, and many more will follow.

• Go big or go home. “Think big,” Mays said. “Some thought we were actually crazy to [address diversity in] six countries simultaneously. Thinking big actually gave the work greater credibility and visibility.”

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