Supporting gender parity in the workplace

Small steps, especially from men, can lead to big changes for gender equity.
Supporting gender parity in the workplace

Most companies — 91% — are implementing gender diversity initiatives, often spending millions, but are falling short, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study, which surveyed 17,500 employees in 21 countries. The study found that the majority of women reported they receive no direct personal benefit from their company’s gender diversity initiatives.

There is a clear gap between investments and outcomes. Here’s a big reason why: Gender diversity programming centres almost exclusively on women. This unintentionally signals to men that this is a special interest initiative for women only. Given the dearth of women in leadership positions, even the most willing female participants can’t have an impact on change at scale because they simply do not have the numbers.

Experts agree that male participation is critical. Small, tactical decisions employees — particularly men — make can close the divide and strengthen their company’s bottom line in the process. “Every interaction, every conversation you have (or do not have) with each other contributes to how inclusive your culture is,” said Atlanta-based Erin Mitchell Richeson, a global diversity engagement leader at the Kimberly-Clark Corp., a manufacturer of paper-based products.

Here are a few practical prompts, perspective shifts, and actions you can use today to ensure your conversations and interactions are as inclusive as possible, according to several experts:

Practice conscious inclusion. Gender stereotyping starts at a surprisingly young age, new research from New York University Abu Dhabi shows, and is shaped by the cultural context we grow up in. Gender stereotypes affect both men and women and the professional roles they may unconsciously expect to play.

These harmful biases are embedded within seemingly innocuous daily interactions, and even the most conscientious employee may not be aware of possessing them. “No matter how thoughtful and educated you are, everyone has bias,” said Frances Taplett, the global people director for BCG.

Take stock of your cultural, personal, and professional background and how it informs your own behaviours and beliefs about men and women. Think about the colleagues you don’t normally interact with, and do a personal assessment. Have you made assumptions that you do not share commonalities? Is their work style vastly different from your own? Taplett encourages employees to “be flexible and adaptable enough to change the way you communicate”. Said another way: Treat your colleagues the way they wish to be treated, not the way that feels most comfortable to you.

Pay attention to “the moments of truth”, as Taplett called them. “Women are more likely to be interrupted in meetings, for example. As an employee, you can stop the interrupter, redirect the conversation, and make sure to give credit where credit is due,” she said. “This incentivises right behaviour.” Missed, these moments are real morale killers. Leveraged, these moments hold potential for real transformation.

Make every minute count. Engaging in your company’s gender diversity initiatives doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Richeson offered a tiered list of actions you can take depending on your availability.

“When you have five minutes: Strike up a conversation with a co-worker you do not normally engage. Repeat this at least one day each week. When you have ten minutes,” Richeson continued, “read an article or watch a short video about the rationale for inclusive work environments.” She shared a link to one of her favourite resources, a blog introducing content such as “how to build relationships across differences”, produced by the Verna Myers Company.

If you’ve got 30–60 minutes to spare, dive deeper. “Attend a webinar, workshop, or training to learn more and develop awareness and skills to work more effectively with people with different work styles, communication styles, and cultural backgrounds,” she recommended.

Embrace flexibility. Flexible work policies — including part-time employment, remote work, additional nonpaid leave, and shared work — contribute positively to the recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction of a diverse workforce. But only if people feel it’s safe to use.

“When parents come back from parental leave, that is another moment of truth,” Taplett said. “When women have children, salaries go down. Men’s go up. When we share that parental responsibility, it changes the dialogue at work, leading to better outcomes.” Taplett was referring to what researchers call the “motherhood penalty”, the significant earnings gap between women with children and both women without children and men.

Sharing personal stories at work can challenge limiting misconceptions about family and home life. “People do have a responsibility to open up conversations,” said Nadia Nagamootoo, a chartered psychologist and gender equality expert at Avenir Consulting, a firm facilitating conversations with companies like Lloyd’s of London and EY.

Flexible work arrangements can help here. While completing an executive MBA at Henley Business School, Nagamootoo conducted a study exactly along these lines. Based on survey data with 773 working fathers in the UK, she examined the impact of men using flexible work arrangements. The results are instructive. Such arrangements lead to happier men. Another win: Women with a male partner who shared in child and household responsibilities advance professionally at a faster clip, as compared to women whose male partners play little to no role in these same responsibilities.

Strategically manage up. If your company’s diversity and inclusion policies and actual practices aren’t aligned, which is a common challenge, according to Nagamootoo, pragmatically assess where progress hits a bottleneck.

“It is often the sticky middle,” she said, “the line manager level, who create the local culture about whether it’s possible to access inclusion initiatives. People anticipate their line manager’s response and this influences their decision about whether to even ask to participate in a programme.”

If you can speak with your direct manager, do so, Nagamootoo said. However, if that isn’t possible, ask yourself, “Who are the key influencers here when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the company? Who do you know at a senior level who can open doors for you that your line manager may have consciously or unconsciously closed?” From there, networking with higher-ups who have bought in to the programme is the way to go.

Leigh Ann Carey is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at