#IWD2020: What’s Next in the Fight for Gender Equality at Work?

YWomen Driving Workplace Equality: Awareness, Accountability and Advocacy

Driving Workplace Equality: Awareness, Accountability and Advocacy

I believe there are three As to address the question of “what’s next” in 2020 to bring about equality in the workplace:

  • Awareness
  • Accountability
  • Advocacy

International Women’s Day is this Sunday, March 8, 2020, and the theme is #EachForEqual. The focus this year is on:

Let’s be candid. Women’s equality in the workplace is stalled. Progress is slow — snail’s pace slow, in fact.

 Why is Gender Equality Stalled at Work, and What Can We Do About It?

Men still occupy roughly 80 percent of the senior leadership roles at U.S. companies, and their engagement in the work of advancing women is necessary and vital. There is a leadership imperative to move organizations to a deeply internalized approach regarding leveraging differences, executed with a sense of urgency to create both a high functioning work environment for EVERYONE and to create a competitive advantage in the workplace.

As Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener highlight in their book, Workforce America!: Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource, the full participation of a diverse workforce capitalizes on the creativity and richness that increased diversity offers. The challenge in front of company leaders is how to create environments that foster the full participation of a diverse workforce.

Most managers are ill-equipped to effectively manage diversity. They either don’t consider it an issue or see “managing it” as slowing down their primary responsibilities, misconceptions that miss the value that diversity of thought and experience bring to organizations and workgroups. We often focus on gender and race as dimensions of diversity, but diversity is actually vast and includes an array of physical and cultural differences that comprise the whole person.

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As Loden and Rosener note, primary dimensions of diversity are differences we are either born with or which impact us early in our development and continue through our lives. These elements are core to our identity. Secondary dimensions of diversity are acquired, modified and discarded during the course of our lives. In total, these dimensions shape our values and perceptions and foster our unique view of our environment, including the myths, biases, assumptions and stereotypes we carry with us. For older workers, the workplace was often the main exposure to diversity and emphasized the need to establish productive working relationships with others who were different from us.

As a gender strategist, I use gender as a gateway. Realistically, most people find it challenging to have a simple conversation about gender. If we can’t talk about gender, how can we talk about race, ethnicity, age and the other dimensions of diversity?

Additionally, I talk about gender in a binary sense as most individuals and organizations are not (yet) prepared to discuss transgender or gender non-binary. This is not to say gender is more important than any other dimension of diversity. This is what makes conversations sometimes challenging. Leaders need to be able to talk not just about gender but also the intersectionality of all dimensions of diversity. I work with organizations to advance women using a combination of top-level business strategies and working systemically to engage men as allies and advocates within the organization.

Many men will ask, why can’t we just acknowledge diversity of thought and get back to business as usual? The challenge is that diversity of thought is just the starting point. Leaders need to get comfortable listening, understanding and going deeper. Well-meaning leaders often say, “I don’t see gender or race.” This “gender/color blind” approach ignores the fact that personal, social and historical events have happened to shape people’s experiences. Individuals actually want to be valued for their gender and race. If you flip it to test it, it would be like a woman or person of color replying, “That’s okay, I don’t see you as a man.” Not exactly a compliment for most men!

I’ve found that there are three factors that impact driving change in organizations, especially when it comes to advancing women and engaging men as advocates. I call them the three As:

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Awareness. Men and women are having vastly different experiences in the workplace. Women and people of color face a host of systemic, cultural and hidden biases at work. I encourage men in management positions to take a trusted female colleague to coffee and ask about her experiences in their company (and industry), then to actively listen to her response. Genuinely listening to employee issues and concerns is the requisite first step to gaining understanding before diving into “leading.” To understand what is happening (or not happening) in your organization, it is imperative that senior leaders (namely older white men since they comprise more than 80 percent of senior business leaders) explore this paradigm.

When you listen, there is a strong chance you’ll hear about one or more of these common microaggressions that women face on a daily (if not hourly) basis:

  • Voice talked over/interrupted
  • Expertise is questioned
  • Assumption of all office housework
  • Being called a “Working Mom” when male peers aren’t labeled “Working Dads”

While these may seem minor to most men, when women encounter this issue multiple times on the same day, it becomes a significant issue. I suggest all men observe this behavior and then talk to women. You will see this is a very real issue women face every day. Ask yourself, how are microaggressions impacting engagement, productivity and retention?

Accountability.  According to the McKinsey 2018 Women in the Workplace study, 76 percent of companies have articulated the business case for gender diversity but only 13 percent hold people accountable for tangible results. Business leaders track EVERYTHING in business. However, very few track anything when it comes to advancing women.

The study also notes that more than 90 percent of companies say they prioritize gender and racial diversity, but only 42 percent of employees think this is the case for gender diversity and only 22 percent think it’s the case for racial diversity.

Why? Because leaders are not held accountable for tangible results. Today, I am still challenged by companies asking, “Can we really measure and track gender balance and hold our people accountable?”

The answer is yes. 

Hard metrics aren’t quotas. In order to be fiscally responsible, businesses track and measure everything from inventory to pending orders and turnaround times. As business leaders, we track. We measure. We ask questions. We hold people accountable. We make adjustments to the strategy based on the numbers. It’s legal. It reinforces the bottom line. Click here for my thoughts on the 10 metrics every business leader should be tracking and holding people accountable for when it comes to advancing women.

Advocacy. Talent is your bottom line. For senior business leaders, talent management is job one. Most senior business leaders rank attracting and retaining talent, developing the talent they have, managing performance and creating effective leadership teams among their top priorities.

Given the current war for talent, the effects of retiring baby boomers and the costs associated with recruiting and retaining employees, it is in companies’ self-interests to address the business case for diversity and gender equity in the workplace. Successful leaders must have the will to address systemic inequities, biases and cultural norms that hold back or drive out women and minorities.

I have attended scores of women’s leadership events during the past few years and witnessed many amazing women (and a number of men) talking collectively about how to advance women. I’ve had the pleasure of working with C-Level male leaders who are true champions and advocates and are demonstrating the will to drive change in their organizations. The companies that are making real progress have male advocates within the organization who do four things: They ListenLearnLead and are visible and vocal in their advocacy to create a new dynamic within the organization. Quite frankly, they have the Will to Lead change and be agents of change.

What do advocates do?

  • Listen and Seek to Understand
  • Create a Business Case – Hold People Accountable
  • Set An Example to Correct Bias
  • Embrace Workplace Flexibility
  • Encourage Qualified Women to Apply
  • Sponsor or Mentor Women
  • Give Stretch Assignments
  • Introduce to Networks
  • Engage Other Men
  • Demonstrate Advocacy – HAVE THE WILL!!!!

As we enter Women’s History Month, ask yourself what you are personally doing to foster equality for all in your organization. The war for talent is real. Attracting and retaining talent is job one for managers – at every level in the company. Are you ready to challenge the status quo and work to create a future that values diversity and is truly inclusive? If so, then join me in becoming an advocate today.

To assess where your company is take the 30-point Readiness Assessment. To assess where you are as an ally and advocate take the Advocacy Quiz. For tips and meeting-in-a-box ideas to start conversations about gender, women’s advancement and engaging men, sign up for the YWomen e-newsletter Gender Conversation QuickStarters.

For Conversation QuickStarters based on this article visit the archives.

Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Founder of the Father of Daughter Initiative, creator of the Gender Conversation QuickStarters Newsletter and the Male Advocacy Profile, Jeffery is former director of diversity strategy for The Coca-Cola Company and is the author of two books, WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men, Selling to Women.