If a woman is struggling to be successful at work and at home, and is employed in a workplace culture where she does not feel valued and included, or isn’t sure she can succeed, the juggling act may not be worth it. She may fail to reach her potential—or quit.
If she is in a workplace where she feels valued and supported, she is more likely to make the juggling act work. She is more apt to stay, do her best work and succeed. Whether women have children or not, in a supportive culture they will thrive and contribute. And as more women make it to the top, the business will realize the documented upside of gender diversity.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic has gained lots of attention (positive and negative) and sparked discussion on an important issue. She focuses on the challenge of being a good mother and climbing the organizational ladder. Clearly, this challenge is one of the primary reasons why women still are not proportionally represented in the upper ranks of corporations, government and higher education.
Slaughter suggests a number of changes to help employers address the “have it all” issue: creating flexible schedules, changing the “culture of face time,” and redesigning the career arc.
These are not just women’s issues. Post baby-boom generations eschew the workaholic lifestyle of their parents, and men and women now share family responsibilities more equally, so both genders (and therefore a larger portion of the workforce) would benefit from Slaughter’s suggestions.
But employers who do all of this may still find that a smaller portion of high-potential women than men make it to the top. In order to achieve gender diversity in leadership (a very good thing for business), they need to do something else as well—create a culture that is welcoming to both men and women.
My work focuses on this gender-diversity challenge: creating gender-inclusive workplace cultures. I know how hard it is to juggle career and family while trying to “have it all.”
So how does a leader create a culture in which women as well as men feel valued and included? I suggest these steps:
- Gather data showing where in the organization gender diversity has, and has not, been achieved. What is the percentage of women at each level of the organization? What are the turnover rates for women vs. men? If the percentage of women represented at upper levels is below their percentage at lower levels, make this issue understood by thought leaders.
- Understand the business case for inclusion and gender diversity. Present the issue as a business opportunity in order to generate buy-in and change.
- Measure the level of engagement—the degree to which employees feel valued and experience a sense of belonging. Do surveys and other mechanisms show that women are less engaged than men in certain groups or functions?
- Understand the causes of disengagement and turnover. Use surveys and focus groups to learn, for example, whether women feel excluded from formal and informal networks. Is what I call the “comfort principle” (the natural preference for being with people like ourselves) creating advantages for white males and obstacles for women and others? Do women have an equal chance to develop trusting relationships that lead to great work assignments, exposure and experience? Do women generally feel they can succeed? Are “unconscious preferences” for a masculine way of achieving results making women feel less valued or affecting their opportunities for promotion?
- Provide awareness training for leaders and managers that frames the issue, demonstrates why fixing it is good for business and increases appreciation of the differences in masculine and feminine approaches. Focus not on men and women, because that involves stereotyping, but on the value of masculine and feminine ways of working. By being aware of these differences, people can monitor the “comfort principle” and “unconscious preferences” and assure that neither creates barriers for women. Facilitate ongoing discussions about the strengths of both masculine and feminine approaches and how appreciation of both can improve engagement, retention and results.
- Use awareness of masculine and feminine differences to coach women to speak up, toot their own horns and ask for challenging opportunities—and to coach men to respect these behaviors in women as well as men.
- Monitor whether the “comfort principle” is influencing the selection of who gets good assignments and who gets mentored. If it does, take action to assure opportunities for growth are offered equally to women.
- Determine whether “unconscious preferences” are affecting how women’s contributions are measured and appreciated. Take steps to assure that women are measured for the results they contribute, not whether their way of getting them is different from the norms set by those at the top (often predominately white males).
- Hold people accountable. Establish rewards and consequences that encourage inclusive behavior and discourage behaviors that cause women to feel less valued and supported. Reward leaders who model and leverage both masculine and feminine approaches, provide mentoring and sponsorship to women as well as men, and give women a fair share of opportunities for experience and growth.
- Measure and celebrate progress. Are women feeling more engaged? Is retention improving? Are more women making it to the upper levels of the organization?
This is a lot for leaders to do. Implementing changes to address the “have it all” issue, and taking steps to build a gender inclusive culture requires work. But the payoff to the business is worth it!
About the Author
Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion, began her career as a successful lawyer in a private practice, becoming partner in a large regional firm in the demanding area of securities law and mergers and acquisitions. Later, she climbed the corporate ladder at Coors Brewing Company and its parent company (now MillerCoors and MolsonCoors) to become the company’s first female Senior Vice President. Turner is now a business consultant, advising clients on creating cultures of inclusion, facilitating workshops and delivering speeches.