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How to Achieve Gender Equality in Your Business

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This post is part of a series called How to Improve Diversity in Your Business (Essential Guide).
What Are the Important Dimensions of Workplace Diversity?

Today is International Women’s Day, and the theme for this year is “Be Bold for Change.” As the website says:

Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world - a more inclusive, gender equal world.
International Womens Day logo

But how exactly do you do that? What steps can businesses take to achieve gender equality in the workplace?

In today’s tutorial, I’ll answer those questions in depth. You’ll learn:

  • How to set meaningful and effective gender equality goals in your business—it’s not as simple as you might think!
  • How to change your recruiting practices so that you identify and hire more top women candidates.
  • How to make your workplace culture welcoming and supportive to women so that you retain more of your talented employees.
  • How to measure your progress towards gender equality and adapt your strategies as needed.

Are you ready to be bold for change? Do you want to forge a more inclusive, gender equal world? Yes? Then let’s get started!

1. Set Your Gender Equality Goals

What does gender equality in the workplace actually mean?

The 50-50 Goal

An obvious objective would be to aim for 50% women and 50% men in your workforce. That's a good start, but gender equality goes much deeper than that.

For example, consider a company with 10 well-paid executives who are all men, and 10 low-paid support staff who are all women. Is that equal?

Clearly not, so we also need some other measures here.

Equality Within Business Groups

As we saw in the first tutorial in this series on the benefits of workplace diversity, a large part of the payoff comes from having diverse perspectives within teams. Studies have shown that more diverse teams tend to be more innovative and better at problem solving than homogeneous teams.

So if you have a group of men working in one area and a group of women in another, you’re simply not going to get those benefits.

Instead, it makes sense to have a high level of diversity within as many groups as possible. Set gender equality goals not just for the business as a whole, but also for each division within the business, and each group within each division.

You don’t have to be rigid about it, of course. I’m not saying that every single team for every single project has to have exactly equal numbers of men and women. Set goals that make sense for your business, aiming for overall equality while allowing some fluidity for individual teams.

Equality Across Different Levels of the Business

Gender equality means nothing unless women can access the very highest levels in the organization.

But while businesses in many countries have made progress in employing more women, the “glass ceiling” is still very much in place. Women are still woefully under-represented in top leadership positions.

An MSCI report in 2015 found that women held just:

  • 18.1% of directorships at MSCI World Index companies
  • 19.1% of directorships at MSCI USA companies
  • 8.4% of directorships at MSCI Emerging Markets Index companies

All of these numbers are moving upwards, but from a very low base, so there’s clearly a long way to go.

The report also found that:

Companies that had strong female leadership generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without.

So in your business’s board of directors or leadership team, aim for gender equality. And make sure that the equality flows right through the other senior levels of the organization too. It’s the right thing to do, and you’ll also reap the benefits—not just according to the MSCI study, but also to a whole raft of other research.

Equality of Pay

Another important place to aim for equality is in that item dear to the heart of every employee: the paycheck.

Again, the facts are simple and stark. There’s a very real gender pay gap. In the U.S., women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, and in many countries it’s even worse.

Some of the inequity is linked to what we just talked about: women being under-represented in senior positions. But studies have also found that women get paid less than men for doing exactly the same job at the same company and with similar education and experience.

So for your business, why not set a goal of overall pay equality between men and women? And you can also keep an eye on the salaries you’re offering to individual employees who do the same kind of work, to make sure there’s no implicit gender bias there.

2. How to Improve Your Hiring Practices

So how do you make progress towards gender equality?

If your workforce is currently weighted towards men, a good place to start is by hiring more talented women for top positions.

I’m sure you haven’t intended to discriminate against women in your recruiting so far. But if you’ve ended up hiring mostly men, something needs to be changed. It could be one of the following things:

  • how you advertise the job
  • where you advertise the job
  • the image of the company that you present
  • your interview procedures

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

(Note that in this article I’m assuming that your workforce is currently weighted towards men, since that’s the most common situation. But most of the principles discussed here will work the other way around too.)

How You Advertise

Did you know that using certain common phrases in job ads can deter women from applying? The way you describe a job opening could be cutting you off from loads of talented candidates.

Research has found that using so-called “masculine-coded” words such as “competitive” and “dominate” makes women less likely to apply for the job. It’s a fascinating and complex area, and there’s so much gender bias within our language that it can be very difficult to be aware of it all.

Fortunately, there are some simple tools to help you out. On the free website Gender Decoder for Job Ads, you can simply paste in your text and hit a button to check for subtle linguistic gender coding. There’s also Textio, a paid service with a two-week free trial.

Also consider the qualifications and requirements you list: Are they really necessary for the job?

Why does this matter? Of course, it’s not that women are less qualified. It’s because of the mass of research indicating an overall confidence gap between men and women. Women are less likely than men to apply for a position when they don’t meet all of the job requirements.

Where You Advertise

Where are you advertising your vacant positions? Do you know the readership demographics of those websites, magazines or job boards?

It’s obvious when you think about it. Some websites are read more by men, and some are more popular with women. If you want to hire more women, go where the women are.

For example, check out this article by Tom McFarlin for a useful list of websites and organizations focused on women in engineering and technology.

Also, remember that word of mouth is an important way to find candidates. So encourage your employees to be your own recruiters. Consulting firm Accenture recently announced it would pay higher referral bonuses to employees who recommended an African-American, Hispanic-American, woman or veteran who was successfully hired.

Your Company’s Image

In the hiring process, it’s not just the candidate who has to convince you to hire them; you also have to sell your company to the candidates you want to recruit.

So you need to be conscious of the image you’re presenting of your company. That includes your website, social media, marketing materials, job information pack, and so on.

At Envato Tuts+, the editors put a lot of effort into improving the Teach at Envato Tuts+ page to make it more welcoming to a diverse group of potential instructors. Notice how both the language and the imagery emphasize the commitment to diversity.

teach at Envato Tuts

So take a look at how you represent yourself in the job market, and see how you can improve your messaging.

Your Interview Procedures

Unfortunately, gender bias is rife in the interview process.

Studies have found that:

  • Interviewers display unconscious biases, such as believing women are worse at mathematical tasks and better at verbal tasks than men.
  • Hiring managers are twice as likely to hire a man over a woman.
  • When a lesser candidate was hired instead of a more qualified candidate, the lesser candidate was a man over two-thirds of the time.

How can you overcome these biases? It’s not easy, but an important step is to address them. Try out the fascinating Implicit Association Tests offered free by Harvard University. The “Gender-Career” and “Gender-Science” tests may be relevant to you.

Also, of course, having women involved in the hiring process is important—although not enough by itself, as the research quoted above also showed that even when women were the hiring managers, they were more likely to hire a man.

3. How to Improve Employee Retention

If you’ve followed the steps above, you probably have a better chance of improving gender equality in your hiring practices.

But that’s only half the battle. If the women you’ve hired encounter a misogynistic or otherwise unwelcoming workplace culture, they won’t stick around long.

So in this section, we’ll look at ways you can change your workplace culture to ensure that your newfound gender equality is a permanent rather than a fleeting thing.

Take a Firm Stand on Discrimination and Harassment

Uber is under fire right now after a horrifying account of sexual harassment by a former engineer, Susan Fowler.

What’s disturbing about Fowler’s account is—well, pretty much everything. But on top of the harassment she describes, what stood out for me was the way she says HR defended her manager’s behavior and blamed the victim. (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a statement that the behavior described is “abhorrent” and announced an urgent investigation.)

If you want to achieve anything close to gender equality in the workplace, it’s essential to have a clear policy on discrimination and harassment and to take any allegations very seriously. You may also want to provide training to your employees to help them understand what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Offer Women-Friendly Benefits

Of course, it’s not only women who are involved in childcare or have family commitments. But still, surveys show that traditional gender roles are still powerful, and women still shoulder many of the household responsibilities in addition to their work lives.

So things like flexible working arrangements, onsite childcare facilities and generous maternity leave are great ways to support your employees in their family lives and make them more likely to stay at your company.

For example, consider offering part-time positions and job shares, which can really help people with families. Consider these survey results reported in The Guardian:

  • 46% of UK workers want to work flexibly, but only 8.7% of jobs that pay over £20,000 offer that possibility. 
  • 79% said they did not feel they could ask their employer to job share without it affecting their employability. 
  • 96% of respondents were women, and 70% had reduced working hours or their level of seniority, changed careers, or left work altogether. Just over half (52%) had done so because of parenting commitments.

When you're setting up the part-time positions and job shares, just make sure that the benefits are also fair and that part-time workers don't miss out. For example, many holidays fall on Mondays, so make sure that people who don't work a full day on Monday don't miss out on holiday pay or time off.

Mentoring Programs

As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book Lean In, mentorship is important to help women break through that glass ceiling and progress to the top levels in their careers.

So consider creating a full-blown mentoring program in your organization. Or if you run a smaller company, maybe do it more informally, by asking people in leadership positions to take newer employees under their wing. By helping people in their careers, you’ll see the benefit for your own business too.

Some companies have also created specific programs aimed at encouraging women to join and flourish in areas where they’ve traditionally been under-represented. Etsy, for example, increased the number of women engineers by almost 500% in one year by launching “Etsy Hacker Grants” to provide scholarships to talented women engineers to get additional training. 

Be Fair

This one sounds simple, but it isn’t. Check out this McKinsey article in which Beth Axelrod, then head of HR at eBay, talks about what a meritocracy really means in a world of widespread gender bias.

Being aware, on a systematic basis, of how we unintentionally interpret women’s and men’s personal communication styles differently. And being careful to ensure that the assessment and promotion processes do not inadvertently misinterpret those styles—for either gender.

Axelrod gives the example of women being called either too timid or too aggressive, when the same behaviour in a man often wouldn't be commented on.

Simply having somebody in the room who listens for those unintended biases in interpreting styles is very helpful.

Another issue she talks about is promotion—women tend to be less likely to apply for promotions for the reasons discussed earlier. So it’s important to ensure that this isn’t interpreted as lack of ambition, and also to “make sure that the promotion process systematically identifies women in the pipeline, not because women should be given an advantage in the promotion process but because they shouldn’t be inadvertently overlooked.”

Creating a meritocracy is a complicated task and may take a lot of time and changes of strategy, but it’s sure to be worthwhile for your business.

4. Measure Your Progress and Make Changes

The key to success in any project is to measure your progress and to change your approach if you're not meeting your goals.

So once you’ve started trying to promote gender equality in your business, it’s important to keep track of your progress at regular intervals. Go back to the goals you set in section 1, and put a schedule in place for measuring what you’ve achieved towards each of the goals.

Keep in mind that this is not a “quick fix” kind of project. We’re talking about changing the composition of your workforce over time, and it will be a gradual process. Even if you do manage to fix your recruitment and retention strategies to work towards gender equality, it will still take time. New positions only come open so often, and unless you have very high employee turnover, it will likely take several years for you to reach your ultimate goals.

What’s important, however, is that you are moving in the right direction and at a pace that feels right for your business. What’s important is that you are taking gender equality seriously and taking every available opportunity to pursue it.

If you’re not making progress quickly enough towards your targets, look more deeply at the numbers. Is it a recruiting problem, or do you have a high turnover? Do you have equal numbers but not equal pay or equal representation in leadership roles?

Identifying the area you’re having problems in will dictate the correct approach. If you’re struggling with the hiring process, consider some of the approaches we talked about in section 2, or perhaps hire a dedicated recruiter to speed up the process for you. If it’s about equal pay, conduct a salary review or look for opportunities to promote women to leadership roles.

And although it’s important to track progress, don’t get too hung up on the numbers and percentages. Remember that the real payoff for your business is to realize the benefits of diversity we discussed before. So as well as tracking employee numbers, also look for changes in company culture, job satisfaction, and other key areas.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you’ve learned some useful strategies for achieving gender equality in your business.

We’ve covered the process of setting goals for gender equality, and then talked in detail about how you can set out to reach those goals by altering your recruitment and retention strategies. And finally, we’ve seen how to measure your progress and make changes if you’re not reaching your targets.

Gender, of course, is only one dimension of diversity. There are many others, such as age, sexual orientation, religion and more, as we discussed in a recent tutorial:

In the remaining parts of the series, we’ll go beyond gender and look at how you can achieve more diversity in your business on all these different dimensions.

But today is about women, and I hope that you’ve marked International Women’s Day by learning something new that will help you to take real action towards gender equality in the workplace.

It’s a long process, but I hope you’ve seen today that gender equality is an achievable goal, and that you’re inspired to make a difference in your business and “Be Bold for Change” in 2017.

For more information on closing the gender gap, focusing particularly on the tech industry, read the following tutorials:

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