Every year on March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), a global day acknowledging and honoring the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This year, International Women’s Day is bringing calls to “Choose to Challenge.” The year 2020 tested many of our assumptions about how we work, how we live, and how we think. Our level of awareness around bias, prejudice, racism, sexism, and inequality is raised with progress, yet still needs to evolve. So, we must “choose to challenge.”
In the past 12 months, women were tested in an inordinate way. Many women in the workforce were and continue to be confronted with balancing family, work, and life. The pandemic highlighted many of the issues working women have faced for years, such as insufficient childcare, wage and position inequity, and judgement when family matters occur.
As a woman, a leader, and a business owner, I choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements, push harder, do more, and help forge a more inclusive world. But impactful change does not happen overnight or from individual action. Companies must also “choose to challenge” and solve issues of gender exclusion, inequality, and disengagement in their organization. We know from our extensive work on employee engagement that there are three things that drive engagement across all industries and roles. Those drivers are:
1. Meaningfulness – A sense that my work matters
2. Belonging – Having a sense of pride and affiliation with the organization
3. Growth – A feeling that there is an opportunity for me to grow and develop within the company
Leaders and organizations who choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world are also taking steps to make sure that their female employees find their work meaningful, have a sense of belonging, and are encouraged to grow and develop within the company.
Although many organizations enacted policies for working from home, those policies were a result of quarantines and not the need for work-family policies. But it got the ball rolling. So how does a company make long-lasting change to benefit female employees? Women are a critical component of the workforce, and companies that implement progressive work-family policies and commit to removing barriers and biases realize better retention and engagement, less unplanned absenteeism, and improved employer reputation and brand.
In many companies, HR has been tasked with finding solutions that support diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives. That is a big task, as these initiatives require deliberate and intentional culture change and that takes time. DE&I can’t be owned by a single person, it must be owned by everyone. It also takes a significant amount of influence and deliberate direction from outside of HR. So, HR along with company leadership must “choose to challenge” and invest in the future. Changes evolve; however, there are things that HR and leadership can do right now to assure your female employees are connected and feel included and understood. I acknowledge that much of this applies to total families but let’s take the time to look at the female population. We know we need females in the workplace, we know they contribute to the success of an organization, and we know we cannot achieve organizational goals without them. Consider the following:
Having data rather than anecdotes is important, especially for leadership buy-in. Keep your finger on the pulse! Administer a pulse survey asking a few questions that help you gauge the employee climate. At CCI, we send out periodic pulse surveys and our team has been very transparent. When we saw that people were not feeling secure or expressed feelings of isolation, we acted. We learned that some of our female employees were juggling and working long hours to compensate for childcare duties. We let them know it was OK and we trusted them to do what that had to do. Leaders must listen and respond. Empathic leadership increases engagement and all the benefits thereof.
Sounds counterintuitive but there is a lot of employee burnout right now―physical, psychological and emotional. Employees are rising in the morning and start working immediately. There is not a normal transitional commute. Lunch is in front of the computer or on a call. There is no walk to the lunchroom, stroll outside or water cooler catch-ups. And many do not end their day when they should…it is continuous. Not to mention that many working women with families also have school-age children learning from home. There are some simple policy changes you can make:
Many organizations have a culture of the 60-hour work week to get noticed and climb the ladder. Many women postpone career aspirations because they cannot do the long hours and offer the on-demand readiness that many bosses demand. Performance should be measured on just that: Performance―getting results and meeting goals. If anything, this pandemic has taught us that we can accomplish the same (and more) at home as opposed to long hours in the office. It is time to change the culture and mindset that long hours equal achievement.
We are humans. We like to be with people. We need forums for all kinds of communications, from status updates to formal company meetings to informal catchups. We miss face-to-face communications. We, especially females, need empathy and understanding for what it takes to balance work and family responsibilities. While not the same, send emails of appreciation for achievements, birthdays, company anniversaries, good work, etc. Have virtual celebrations for holidays or life events like a wedding. Pick up the phone and talk. We were a community before we left the office and we must find ways to create and keep community now. Employee Appreciation Day is March 5, 2021. Find a way to say, “Thank you.”
Not every leader is good at virtual leadership. If there are imperfections, they will be showing up. In my opinion, leaders who cannot display empathy and humility right now will fail. I said it before, empathize with your female employees. They want to hear that you get it! Coaching and training are more important now than ever before. There may have been a brief pause in coaching leaders, but currently we are seeing many requests for coaching and assessments, as well as strategic succession planning. Consider a female leadership program for your emerging leaders. Get them ready for future roles now. We sure have learned that we cannot be ready enough for future challenges, but we can take some preemptive action. Again, consider an engagement survey to get a full picture of what your female employees and your leaders feel and need.
Gender wage issues are a reality that has persisted for decades. In the past 12 months, we performed more compensation analyses than in the preceding two years. Reviewing and analyzing salary data to assure there is equal pay among diverse groups is imperative, both legally and strategically.
Women are more likely to stay in organizations where they can see that other women are trusted, respected, achieving and contributing in meaningful ways. Don’t lose good employees because another company offered them a better path to the future. Years ago, thought leaders challenged employees to be responsible for their own careers. That did not always work. Today, smart organizations implement internal career management programs that offer assessment and career discussions. They pave the path to career progression and satisfaction.
As mentioned, we must feel that our work is meaningful to feel engaged. The same applies to those contemplating retirement. Offering assessment and discussion about when and how retirement will happen creates honest, trusting conversations and results in better transitions and knowledge management.
On International Women’s Day, choose to challenge yourself and your organization to commit to the changes needed to achieve equity and fairness. As Meg Whitman said, “Run to the fire, don’t hide from it.”