How to Tackle Gender Diversity in the Workplace: 4 Tips from Industry Pros


Two ladies attending the Lead-On Conference

Don’t worry, no need to wiggle uncomfortably in your chair. We won’t make this awkward, promise.

So a few months back, my colleague Rachel and I learned about the Lead On Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women.

We were dying to go. Not only are we huge advocates of professional growth and networking, but the lineup of powerful women in the Bay Area attending the conference was impressive. When we met to figure out how we should pitch our attendance to our managers – i.e. how the conference relates to Fond’s vision for employee happiness – it took us a little too long to realize…

Isn’t gender diversity a central issue for companies trying to boost employee happiness?

In fact, workplaces that fail to foster inclusiveness have exceptionally higher turnover rates than companies that don’t focus on diversity in the workplace. According to Glassdoor, two-thirds of individuals consider diversity a high requirement when evaluating companies to work for.

The truth is, gender diversity in the workplace is a tough topic to talk about – especially for businesses. A Glassdoor survey shows that 57% of workers surveyed think their company should be doing more to increase diversity in the workplace.

So when we attended the conference, we got to speak with four experts in the corporate diversity space. We heard their unique perspectives on the state of corporate diversity today as well as their tips to companies for improving it. We’d like to share them with you.

Let’s get started:

1) Does your workforce reflect your audience?

Interview with Trudy Bourgeois, founder of The Center for Workplace Excellence and authority on leadership development and diversity in corporate America.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Trudy told us. “If companies have individuals at the table that represent a dimension of their consumer base, of course they’re going to make more innovative decisions, of course they’re going to be able to collaborate to build things that are relevant.”

It seems like a simple philosophy of business, with obvious strategic benefits. But too often, Trudy said, it slips through the cracks.

“There was a case study of a well-known global brand that had white men heading up the department running the feminine care line,” Trudy continued. “They were clueless. It finally dawned on them that maybe they should have some women in leadership roles for that product line. That diverse perspective would be essential to their company’s success.”

So what can companies do to fix this?

“The conversation must start at the board level,” Trudy said. “They should ensure the CEO is guiding the company in the right direction. It’s simple talent management. Many companies say that people are their greatest assets, but oftentimes the culture doesn’t align with that. The board needs to be keeping the board in check. What’s the plan? How does diversity and inclusion fit into that plan? And then it moves down.”

The conversations around diversity today are often lined with fear and insecurity. The solution isn’t to run away, Trudy told us, but to talk about it.

“There’s no reason in this day and time for people to stay in organizations where they are going to suffer,” she said. “Companies need to understand: you’re going to win if your company becomes culturally competent. And you will lose if you don’t.”

2) Does your workplace foster safe conversation spaces around diversity?

Interview with John Gray, best-selling author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and co-author of Gender Intelligence: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line.

“One of the biggest obstacles is being PC,” says John. “We can’t talk about differences. We promote positive interpretations whenever differences come up, and this often ends up causing misunderstandings.”

John recently co-authored a book with Barbara Annis (whose interview is forthcoming) that explores and encourages companies to adopt Gender Intelligence: the idea that gender differences do exist, and we have to be willing to understand and discuss them openly — especially in the workplace.

“Does the office environment allow everyone – men and women – to fully be themselves so that they can love their work? Because that’s what people are going to be drawn to. Unfortunately, women aren’t feeling appreciated in the workplace,” says John. Companies need to try to understand why.

“I had an assistant once tell me she wanted to quit,” John continued. “Well I said, ‘why?’ And she told me she didn’t feel appreciated. I was thinking: look, you did this, I paid you, what is there to be appreciative about? Of course I appreciated her. But she didn’t feel appreciated. She wanted to have a relationship where the leader understood where she was coming from.

“Then it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what she did,” John said. “So, every day I took 5 minutes to hear what she was doing, learning about her problems, etc. Suddenly she felt more appreciated. And you know, the biggest win was that I simply realized how much she did.”

3) How adaptable are your company’s work practices?

Interview with Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink at Work and founder of Working Moms Break.

“I felt like it was all my fault, and I was just doing what I was supposed to do. Why couldn’t I make it work?”

Katrina experienced trying to re-enter the workplace after starting a family and being a working mother. “The US has less support from working families than most other countries in the world. Studies show that women are at higher risk of burning out at work. A lot of it is around issues like caring for families. But those are also things that men have to deal with.”

According to EY, 86% of US millennials are less likely to quit their jobs if offered paid parental leave. The same survey showed that 74% of US millennials want their supervisors and colleagues to support work flexibility without stigma. So what can companies do?

“There’s no one-size fits all solution,” says Katrina. “That said, there are certain work practices that are tried and true; being able to work from home is a big thing. Offering better part-time options adds to innovation and productivity. Lots of women realize after having 2 kids that they can’t go full speed, and their companies don’t give them an option so they end up leaving. Why do we make it so impossible to work part-time?”

Katrina encourages companies to consider whether their policies are indirectly limiting the diversity of their employees.

“There’s a lot of shallow lip-service around work-life balance and empowering women. Having a foosball table and merely offering the ability for women to freeze their eggs aren’t going to keep women around,” says Katrina. “It’s simple: as a society, we have to show that we care about caregiving.”

4) Does your company have a sponsorship program in place?

Interview with Barbara Annis, authority on Gender Intelligence and co-author of Gender Intelligence: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line.

“Glass ceilings are a tired, tired conversation,” says Barbara.

“It’s all about communication. When you look at happiness in the workplace, men and women are happy for different reasons,” she continued.

According to Barbara, being able to identify and understand differences and hold honest, meaningful conversations about them will build trust among your workforce.

“Deloitte used to have 27% turnover for women versus 10% turnover for men, and they didn’t know why,” said Barbara. “They took the time to understand the root cause of the discrepancy and found that women weren’t leaving because of work-life balance issues. It was that 1) they didn’t see a future in their career and 2) they didn’t feel valued.”

One way to fix this? Sponsorships.

A finance company that Barbara advised grew from having 11% to 30% women in leadership roles within 18 months. “It wasn’t a quota [of gender balance] being enforced,” she said. “We created a sponsorship program within [the company]. The men sponsored the women, and they got to know them very well.” Men in senior roles advocated for women and helped empower them to gain more senior roles.

A similar story we found involves Deutsche Bank. An internal study showed that female managing directors were leaving the firm to fill higher-level positions elsewhere that they weren’t considered for internally. After implementing a sponsorship program, one-third of participants of the program moved into larger roles within an year; another third are considered by senior management and HR to be given broader responsibilities.

“We’ve done research on around 240,000 men and women,” says Barbara. “We see that what women express as happiness versus men is different. For men, it’s usually winning – achieving results, getting to the target. Happiness for men tends to be the destination. For women, it’s the journey to get to the destination.”

Diversity, Communication and Happiness

Diversity is an unavoidable issue that every company and HR professional must face. Instead of being reactionary and waiting for diversity issues to crop up within the company, everyone we interviewed encouraged companies to be proactive about it: to tackle diversity head on and start having those difficult conversations.

Every employee has different requirements for workplace happiness, and all employees want a voice. Get down to the personal, individual level and simply ask your employees, “How’s our company doing on diversity?

Not so scary, right?

Two ladies attending the Lead-On Conference

Learn why prosocial initiatives are becoming the go-to engagement tool for growing companies: Why Give Away Your Time & Money? To Be Happier at Work.

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