Beyond Ticking the Diversity Boxes: Telling a New Story about Corporate Gender Balance

Many companies are attempting to strike a gender balance at a managerial level, in their C-Suite, and on their boards. They are pulling up chairs to the proverbial table and asking women to have a seat and a voice. Lean In stated that while the overall outlook from the 590 companies and 22,000 employees they reviewed and reported on is promising, women remain significantly underrepresented.

I am all for bringing women into the room. I am excited to see and hear about women in roles previously slated for a man in the boys’ club (finance roles, anyone?), and I welcome men wanting to join roles previously held for women (admin and secretarial roles, anyone?). But is it enough? When a company shows their statistics of women in certain positions and there is a comparison to men, they are signaling that they are behaving in a socially responsible and inclusive way. They are indicating a commitment to previously underrepresented groups. It is not enough to tell; they must show consistently. It is necessary to create space for representation, mutual respect, and empathy. It is not about what boxes companies tick off, it is about the story they tell and the day-to-day experiences of employees.

McKinsey surveyed 40,000+ people at 317 companies in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. They reported that over 55% of senior-level women felt exhausted compared to the 40% of senior-level men. 40% of senior-level women felt burnt out while 30% of senior-level men. Perhaps worst of all, 37% of senior-level women felt pressure to work more compared to 27% of senior-level men. McKinsey stated that few companies have taken into account the challenges caused by the pandemic and less than a third have adjusted their performance reviews or modified their expectations of employees. This leaves parents and caregivers (typically women) with the short end of the stick. All people are experiencing increased stress, anxiety, and depression due to the impacts of the pandemic such as social isolation and financial struggles.

I can only imagine the pressure put on employees below those senior-level people. The story I see come through in these statistics is that the experience for women in the workplace is different from men. Many companies have a tradition of being built, maintained, and organized by men, leaving little room for diversity. At the end of the (work) day, beyond noting the experiences of women and men in the workplace, the story needs to change and women’s steer in the culture of the company might help the company to improve morale amongst employees. By creating a culture around authentic community and care, makes for better business and morale amongst employees. In order for workplaces to be healthier spaces for men and women alike, inclusivity and acceptance that turns into appreciation is necessary. It starts with working towards addressing, understanding, and eliminating biases followed by active listening conversations and incrementally, the story of a workplace will change.

Seat at the table — Christina @ wocintechchat.com (downloaded from Unsplash)

Gender balance and inclusivity involves moving well beyond balance and tolerance and into integration and appreciation for varied perspectives and values. The seats that companies are pulling up are often uncomfortable for the sitters. Sitting at the table as the one of only a few, demands emotional labor to overcome impostor-syndrome, lack of support, and petty politics. In my experience, I have sat at tables where I want to come across as respectful and assertive so I have to be strategic as to when I speak, how I speak (don’t be too emotive!), and what I say so as not to come across as needing help or too bossy. I see other female colleagues do the same and we have shared the exhaustion that comes with behaving in a way that ensures no feathers are ruffled.

In an ideal world, gender balance and diversity would not need to be pushed. Instead, leaders would see the value in working with, and hearing from women, indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities, and all other groups. Leaders who acted proactively instead of reactively when it came to hiring employees, and leaders who empower all people by showing them respect, equality, and equity. When I find myself working with people who have different life experiences and stories from me, I take away more learnings than if we had all shared the same frame of reference and agreed immediately and without question. I was a part of a consulting group working with an arts and culture non-profit to create a sustainable solution for exhibits and galleries. We were a team of three women and two men. We all had very different jobs and professional backgrounds. We lived in different parts of the world. We were in different age groups. Some of us were raised speaking different languages, too! What we all had in common was our interest in the circular economy and putting together a great product for our client. When we came together, we would have a flow of ideas based on the readings we did and our own experiences. We would challenge each other with questions and tease out better ideas because of our collaboration and open-mindedness. We had disagreements on the direction of our project and where to focus our efforts, but ultimately, we put together a practical, dynamic, and useful product that our client loved. It was through our tensions that we found points of intersection and more innovative ways of working.

Diversity is a risk management tool and a tool for going beyond what we know and the status quo. In a workplace where there is diverse representation and an appreciation and encouragement of diverse ideas, there is space for new ideas to flourish. With new perspectives, marketing may become more accessible and capture a new customer. Risks are mitigated when there are different eyes on a product, process, or program that can alert teams if there is an issue that a homogenous team may not have noticed. Deloitte notes that the resulting benefits of incorporating social and environmental opportunities into a business plan are brand differentiation, reputational risk mitigation, market opportunity creation, talent retention, and supply chain resiliency. It is a way to further a company’s ability to share their message and mission, innovate, and enhance the global, accessible, and mobile world we love.

Women at the table — LinkedIn Sales Navigator (downloaded from Unsplash)

The current story we tell of businesses is one of narrow-mindedness, disengagement, and lack of empathy and understanding. It is a business benefit to invest in employees whole-heartedly and strategically. It increases productivity, reduces attrition, improves morale, and enhances innovation. Diversity that turns into inclusiveness and then reaches equity provides far-reaching gains, if we let it. Are we ready to open our minds, move beyond ticked boxes, and create a more bearable workplace for everyone? It is up to us to define our spaces and go beyond what was previously imagined in business. It is for the experiences of those that follow us and more pressingly, for our resilient and sustainable future.

5 Tips on How You Can Go Beyond Ticking the Diversity Boxes

  1. Get curious about your own biases and prejudices. We all have them. There is no shame in knowing what they are. I like to write down all the stories, stereotypes, expectations, and so on and so forth (good and bad) that I have about anything from finances to dating to groups of which I am unfamiliar. With each point, I ask myself if I truly believe it, what it brings up for me, and how I can view it differently.

Written by: Michelle Aboodi

Michelle is the Assistant Procurement Manager — Sustainability & Partnerships at Unilever North America and a soon-to-be Bard MBA graduate. Her mission is to collaborate with others at the intersection of environmental and social justice to envision and create a more sustainable, resilient, and joyful future. She resides in New York City.

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