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Goals of Workplace Inclusion Remain Elusive

Data supporting gender diversity, though hard to refute, doesn't automatically change behavior

Friday, June 14, 2019

By Sai Nitya Bodavala and Nupur Pavan Bang

It is well within the reach of companies to make the effort to ensure that there are more women in leadership positions, and that those who are receive sufficient support to flourish at their jobs. It costs little when compared to the profit that will come as a result of being more gender-inclusive.

Numerous studies indicate a positive correlation between profitability and the presence of women in leadership, but in practice it appears that many are unconvinced.

For example, in a 2016 paper based on a survey of 21,980 firms in 91 countries, the Peterson Institute for International Economics concluded that “for profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30% representation is associated with a 15% increase in the net revenue margin.”

McKinsey and Co.'s Delivering through Diversity found that companies in the top quartile for gender equality not only had a greater likelihood of earning higher profits, but also outperformed companies in the bottom quartile by 27% in long-term value creation.

Recruitment firm Phaidon International, surveying its employees in 2018, found that six out of 10 felt that management did little to promote the benefits of gender diversity in the workplace. Seven out of 10 employees believed that whenever the issue of gender diversity came up, it was presented as a matter pertaining to human resources, rather than its potential contribution to the goal of diversity.

Employees' lack of awareness of the benefits that women can bring to the table, as well as managements' apathy with regard to educating them about it, paints a dismal picture. This is because in many cases, the management is itself unconvinced of this fact.

In a survey that IBM conducted of 2,300 executives and professionals worldwide, 43% could not definitively answer yes or no when asked if they thought gender-inclusive companies were more successful financially. Two-thirds believed that women weren't in leadership positions because they were more likely than men to prioritize their families over their careers.

It seems counterintuitive to think that executives of companies that primarily chase profit would be unaware of evidence linking gender diversity to profit. It may be more of an issue of prejudice than lack of awareness.

Preconceived Notions

Certain ideas have become deeply rooted regarding what a woman can and cannot, or must and must not, do. In India, where gender roles are rigid, women who are in the workforce face a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being assertive and being go-getters leads to them being perceived as “bossy” or “insufferable.” On the other hand, being quiet and conforming to what is asked of them reinforces the general idea that women are subservient and unsuitable for positions of power.

Those who make hiring and firing decisions seem to have skewed ideas of what women are supposed to be like. This idealized perception does not allow them to see the reality. When these two versions are presented as diametric opposites, companies are discouraged from hiring women.

According to a study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Co., participants (employees) “rated mothers as the least desirable job candidates and deemed them as less competent and committed than women without children or men.” Companies subscribe to the notion that motherhood makes the quality of work suffer. What is often overlooked, however, is the boost in productivity that could occur if companies chose to accept the reality of motherhood and to support women instead. If working mothers were assured of a conducive work environment and policies that facilitate their growth, it could greatly decrease turnover rates as well as the cost that companies incur when hiring and training replacements for those who leave.

Not an Immediate Issue

Gender equality isn't considered to be an immediate concern. Although the benefits of having more women in leadership positions are undeniable, less-inclusive organizations aren't necessarily suffering huge losses. So long as profit-making doesn't seem to be affected, companies just push the problem to tomorrow. It is far easier to blame the societal perception of women than to try to create and implement inclusive policies.

Not recognizing and addressing the issue of gender inequality means that fewer steps are being taken to bring women into leadership positions. The lack of women at the decision-making level means that there aren't enough people invested in the problem to bring it up and address it, which perpetuates this vicious cycle.

Investment in Inclusion

Effective inclusion takes time, research, money, collaboration and constantly evolving ideas. Companies lack incentive to invest when the pay-off could take a while. Further, a bias training program or a policy borrowed from another organization does not amount to inclusion.

Inclusive policies must begin by keeping in mind the employees currently working with the company and those that it wishes to hire. It is fairly easy to label as corporate policy a checklist that contributes little to employees' well-being. For a policy to work, it has to be well-researched and thoroughly thought out.

Organizational support is crucial for implementing and sustaining inclusive policies. Over time, the idea of inclusion must be built into the very culture of the organization. As a result, when issues come up, there are mechanisms in place to handle them. On the other hand, dealing with problems as and when they come up is not very efficient. It also does not allow for the company to come up with new and innovative ways of inclusion, instead being far too busy putting out small fires.

Misled Men

IBM's study brings out the misconceptions that men have about working women. Sixty-five percent of the male respondents said that they would have been just as likely to be promoted if they were women; 68% said that they would have received the same compensation had they been women.

That just indicates how far society still has to go in making gender equality a reality. Men are not bystanders, but rather active participants who play a pivotal role in ensuring the closing of the gap between genders.

Excluding men from the conversation about equality only serves to alienate those who currently hold most of the decision-making power. IBM found that 75% of the male executives were willing to commit to certain measurable outcomes that would bring about greater equality over the next five years.

Conclusion

The reasons for companies holding back from implementing inclusive policies are many. It is naÏve to think that mindsets and norms that have developed over decades will change overnight. However, it is undeniable that change is not around the corner, but here and now, and soon older attitudes will lose their sway. Every woman who has managed to reach a leadership position that allows her to change conventional ideas, every company that helps women grow and come into their own, and every woman who has just entered the job market, ready to take on all of the challenges that it poses, is proof of that.

Nupur Pavan Bang (npbang@gmail.com) is associate director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business. Sai Nitya Bodavala is a student of economics at the University of Hyderabad.




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