Despite all of the research, data, and analysis that has been conducted to support the business case for gender equality, organizations large and small still struggle to get buy-in from leaders, managers, and teams. Given the state of gender equality on broad national or global scales, it’s easy to see why moving the needle in one’s own organization might seem like too daunting a task to tackle or even wrap one’s head around. Why try?
Answer: It’s the right thing to do.
And regardless of how discouraging reality might be, there is still work to be done by organizations that recognize the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can still strategize and execute plans to advance women.
Let’s look at seven important factors in making strides toward gender equality as a company and leadership team, and ways to ensure everyone at your organization is onboard.
1. Use middle management as a key driver
Getting leadership buy-in always starts at the top, but where most organizations lose steam is when attempting to replicate that support and get buy-in at all levels of the organization. Employment attorney and HR consultant Kate Bischoff recommends getting sign-off from leadership and then working with middle managers to garner greater support for gender equality efforts. “Middle managers already know what it’s like to not be seen, not be appreciated, and they manage both up and down,” she says. Through their lived experiences of being marginalized—talked over in meetings, passed over for promotions—they can related to women at all levels who have and will have similar experiences.
Charu Malhotra, a director of global talent brand and inclusion advocate, also believes that the top-down approach is not the most effective. “Making sure it [gender equality] is being supported, not just from leadership but from the frozen middle.” A lot of times efforts stop at the middle management level, where the greater percentage of women leaders reside in organizations. Empowering and giving more autonomy to lead and influence at this level is key and will have a greater impact in getting organizations closer to gender equality.
2. Model pay transparency
In the U.S., Equal Pay Day falls in March or April every year. It is the day into the current year on which it takes women as a group to earn what white men did the year prior. Addressing the gender pay gap, where all women on average earn $0.82 cents for every dollar a white man earns, should be a top priority for organizations who seek greater gender equality.
Achieving equal pay for equal work starts with pay transparency. Bischoff says pay transparency should be blatantly obvious and organizations should make it so that anyone feels comfortable talking about it. This would mean not only analyzing internal data and making pay adjustments where necessary, but also including pay data on job postings and announcements to send a clear message that the work/position is being graded, not the individual who will fill the role.
Read more: How to Ask Someone How Much Money They Make
3. Reimagine work-life balance
The idea of what constitutes a healthy work-life balance is a long-standing debate. It is no secret that there are additional challenges for women who often have added responsibilities of managing their home and families. The pandemic amplified these challenges for working women. Although it isn’t ideal or possible in all industries and for some professions, Bischoff says building an infrastructure that allows people to work when they’re able to work will ease some of this burden. Things like making child care more accessible, adjusting hours, and allowing for more paid time off can be modified to suit the organization. “Gender equality means that I don’t have to worry about the fact that I’m a woman impacting how I do my job,” she says.
4. Accept constructive feedback
“Create an environment where complaints are embraced,” Bischoff says. This means everything from the carpet not being nice to serious harassment. Organizations should not only put mechanisms in place where women feel safe to give feedback, but when they do, it is important for organizations to show gratitude for complaints (any and all) because if people feel they are being heard they will share the ones that are really important. As an employment attorney, Bischoff has firsthand knowledge that supports the fact that organizations that hear more complaints are better places to work.
In addition to the internal feedback from individual employees and/or the women’s employee resource group(s), Malhotra urges organizations to also lean into external feedback on review sites and other social channels from women who are former employees, customers, potential employees, and those who were in the candidate pipeline.
5. Focus on retention over recruitment
Attraction and selection are often the major focus of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but just adding more women into an organization won’t solve the gender equality problem. Attraction and selection are important, and organizations should be looking for bottlenecks and correcting anomalies in where they are looking for women, how women are screened and interviewed, and where they are dropping out of the recruiting process. But, simply adding more women to the organization will not fix the gender equality problem.
“Recruiting attraction is a key component of how we solve gender inequality in organizations, my point is that it should not be done first before diagnostics , nor should it be done in isolation, and lastly it’s never a silver bullet,” Malhotra says.
Since the biggest obstacle for early career women on the corporate ladder is a “broken rung” in the first step up to the manager level, where there are only 72 women for every 100 men hired and promoted, we should be putting more emphasis into looking internally at the various touchpoints to determine why women are leaving. It’s likely there are larger issues like a coaching problem, management problem, and/or culture problem that is causing the mass exoduses, Malhotra says.
6. Remember that representation matters
McKinsey research from May 2020 confirmed that organizations with greater gender diversity have higher performance than their peers “…the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. Companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30.”
Bischoff says, “if I see someone who looks like me in the organization in management, I see there is a future for me in the organization.”
The absence of representation causes some women to second-guess. Malhotra adds that “when the leadership team doesn’t look like me, I will have doubts.”
7. Make it a long-term strategy
Gender equality is not something that is going to be achieved overnight, or with a one-off, intermittent reactionary “successes.” “We don’t just want to be focusing on it this month, it’s something that we always want to be thinking about, talking about, and advocating for,” says Malhotra. She adds that organizations should be actionable and time-bound by stating externally what they’re going to be doing and constantly being iterative.” The ultimate goal is for the employee population to reflect the external community.
To achieve the goal of gender equality, collect available research and data on your company and why equality matters, then use it to get buy-in at all levels of the organization. Lastly, Malhotra says organizations should not just be thinking about equality one-dimensionally. They should also be making efforts to greater ethnic diversity. There isn’t gender equality without intersectionality.
About our sources
Kate Bischoff is a management-side attorney and SHRM-SCP/SPHR-certified human resources professional. She advises organizations in a wide range of industries on employment law and employment decisions, from recruitment and workplace culture to terminations. She is particularly interested in how technology affects the employment relationship.
Charu Malhotra is a Prince 2-qualified, resourcing transformation, digital and employer brand, TA leader with over 12 years global experience at Unilever, BP, Primark & Ferrero SA. She has specific experience in creating EVP, employer brand, recruitment marketing strategies globally and deep expertise in deploying technology, social media, and embedding recruiting capability globally.