March 8th was International Women’s Day, and with it came a global spotlight on gender equality in the workplace. This year’s theme was #EmbraceEquity—a call to action for companies to embrace equity and develop inclusive environments.
However, creating a genuinely inclusive workplace goes beyond just embracing equity. It requires taking intentional, systematic steps to ensure everyone’s identity and voice are heard and respected. And right now, that is not the case inside many companies.
Women of underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds are enduring frequent discrimination, according to a study published by the global not-for-profit Catalyst. The research concludes that microaggressions, stereotypes, and biases continue to exist, even though many organizations profess to value inclusion.
This is problematic, as it means that many qualified women are being denied positions of leadership and advancement. Consequently, pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in organizations is more imperative than ever, suggested Haffsa Rizwani, a doctoral researcher at Henley Business School. Rizwani, who studies gender (in)equality in Swedish organizations, said in an interview, “Research shows that while women have historically been disadvantaged in the workplace, adding to the present gender disparity, women of color face harsher challenges, both at the workplace and in their career advancement.”
DEI strategies must, therefore, consider intersectionality—the interconnectedness of social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Doing so will allow for more equitable solutions to be adopted because, according to Pam Maynard, CEO at Avanade—the company created in 2000 by Accenture and Microsoft—to create a genuinely inclusive workplace, the focus needs to shift from providing equal opportunities to ensuring comparable outcomes.
“Too often we look at equality in the workplace in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way, but that is counterproductive; every employee is different and needs different things to succeed,” said Maynard in an interview. Equality can, therefore, not be confused with equity.
This sentiment is shared by Melissa Porterfield, a contributing author to The Everyday Woman’s Guide to Success in Your Business. In an interview. Porterfield, founder of Silk Mountain—a company-culture-based strategic HR advisory firm—said, “I am seeing more companies succeed by turning their focus to the employee experience.” This, she continued, requires taking a holistic approach to DEI that goes beyond offering equal opportunity because “to create an environment where everyone can thrive and grow, you have to recognize that not all employees experience the same workplace challenges.”
Organizations must look beyond the traditional equal-opportunity strategies to achieve such an environment and take proactive steps toward creating a genuinely inclusive workplace. This means, for instance, implementing strategies to increase diversity at all levels and advocating for fair compensation packages and promotions. In addition, according to Porterfield, recruiting qualified individuals from underrepresented communities and providing mentorships and education programs can also help. After all, research suggests that social and leadership capital can help advance careers through networking and leadership training.
That said, addressing workplace inequities is a team effort and everyone—leadership and employees—must do their part if fundamental change is to be achieved. To help, Porterfield recommended six questions everyone should ask themselves:
- Does our organization have a clearly-defined vision, mission statement, and behaviorally-based value system? If not, why not? Porterfield proposes defining the top three to five values you stand for. “These values must be demonstrable”, she said. After all, values are only as powerful as you make them.
- Are we tracking our voluntary turnover, employee engagement, and satisfaction? Low numbers in any of these carry hidden costs that directly impact the bottom line. Also, if you’re not tracking these metrics, you can’t know whether any feedback you get from employees is representative or anecdotal. One study shows that giving meaningful feedback is a powerful way to create an engaged workplace. So, collect meaningful data and analyze it. “Data can identify areas of inequities and support leadership teams in narrowing the gaps to make better decisions,” said Porterfield.
- Are we addressing negative behaviors in our company? Culture will only be as good as the conduct tolerated. Bad behavior—such as harassment and bullying—can cost companies lost productivity, liability costs, and damaged reputations. Unfortunately, it is common for startup founders that they like to hire their friends, suggested Porterfield. “If the friend creates a toxic workplace, the founder insists on keeping them around because of their friendship. I suggest implementing a ‘no jerks allowed’ policy.” Guidelines such as these can help create an environment where everyone is respected and treated fairly.
- Are our equity values and behaviors woven into every aspect of the business, especially in hiring and performance management? If not, it’s time to ensure everyone—from the employees to the CEO—understands and is on board with the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Otherwise, any efforts to create a more equitable workplace will fall short. Remember, culture is not separate from the rest of a business: it is an integral part.
- Could we prove that our company values are demonstrated daily? And if not, how can we ensure that actions align with words? Again, leading from the top is essential in this case. Staff will take their cues from their leaders—whether it’s about taking an active role in creating a diverse workplace, giving feedback, or making sure everyone is seen and heard. So, despite the common belief that it’s HR’s role to take control of the culture, it’s not: Culture sits squarely on the CEO’s desk.
- Do we genuinely take ownership of our culture? It is not enough to talk about it. Taking ownership means actively educating and engaging employees, holding everyone accountable for their behavior and performance, and rewarding those who contribute positively. Leading by example is critical; after all, research published by Harvard Business Review suggests that employees with transformational leaders believe in performing better.
Overall, creating equitable workplaces that are both productive and inclusive requires a commitment from everyone—not just HR. There’s no silver bullet. But, acknowledging these six questions and taking the necessary steps to answer them is a great place to start. After all, it is clear that to create a genuinely inclusive workplace, organizations must challenge existing biases and actively promote diversity, equity and inclusion. And bringing this to life requires an ongoing and conscious effort, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day.