I know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, having spent hours, days, weeks and months in digital forensics classrooms and business conference rooms with few, if any, women alongside me.
At the same time, I also know what it’s like to achieve amazing things in collaboration with diverse teams who are working side by side. Each person at the table, male, female, non-binary, has valuable perspectives and viewpoints that can bridge gaps and solve tough problems.
Unfortunately, less than 5% of the Global 500 are run by female CEOs. While companies around the world are working hard to improve their diversity, inclusion and belonging, we have ongoing to do. Women are still hitting glass ceilings in the workplace, which reflects a cascade of missed opportunities for their own growth as well as the growth of the organisations where they work. There are countless benefits to female leadership and diverse teams, and numerous studies have reported that diverse teams are more innovative and significantly outperform less inclusive competitors.
Simply put, there’s no downside to modernising our workplaces so that they are inclusive and offer a work-life integration that works for people of all walks of life. Throughout my career, I’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t in traditionally male-dominated industries. Like many women, I’ve also seen the unexpected challenges and changes that have resulted from the pandemic. Businesses are still finding new ways of working and new approaches to supporting flexibility in the workplace. These changes are helping women, yes, but the benefits extend to everyone.
What’s particularly exciting is the possibility of linking new ways of working, and what we’ve learned over the last year, with business and diversity objectives. There are several specific ways to do this. These include:
1: Address and break down stigmas
It’s essential to have an open, safe environment to talk about challenging issues, ensure people feel included and establish a culture wherein junior-level employees — especially women — are encouraged to speak up. Open and respectful discussion about hard topics, in addition to education about unconscious bias, will help eliminate stigmas tied to certain groups and lifestyles. For example, women have long grappled with the tension between having a career and having children. Mothers can and do have vibrant careers, but workplaces often lack the supports that help women effectively transition back into their roles after maternity leave. Even when women are supported in this way, many feel that their status as a mother will cause them to be overlooked for promotions or high priority work assignments. Organisations can do better on this front. Likewise, business leaders must also consider additional biases women face in the workplace, so that all women, not only mothers, can grow their careers at the same pace as their male counterparts.
2: Encourage healthy boundaries
Alongside breaking down stigmas, leaders must recognise that traditional views about work-life balance have become outdated. It’s clear that flexibility and work-life integration are not barriers to company success and productivity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As a new mother, I’ve battled with the guilt that comes with trying to satisfy every need. This feeling that that something, work or family, is continually under-prioritised is familiar to many women. I do believe there is a way for women to feel empowered at work, not hindered by it. Every employee has different needs and should therefore have the right to set the boundaries that will help them be successful in their professional and personal lives. Leaders must establish a culture that encourages employees to have a life outside of work, whether that is hobbies, exercise, family time or other forms of self care.
3: Reciprocal mentoring
Leaders should be collaborative and support their people. When employees have encouragement in the right direction, they are far more likely to engage in their jobs and stay with their employers for the long-haul. Reciprocal mentoring—wherein managers and executives listen to colleagues from a diverse set of backgrounds to hear their perspectives on what’s working and what’s not—is one practical way of creating a culture of support and inclusion. Through reciprocal mentoring, employees have the opportunity to shape how their leaders lead and the types of policies and programmes that are put in place across the organisation.
4: Acknowledge and support new mental health needs
Supporting mental health has always been an important responsibility for employers, but it’s taken on a new sense of urgency this past year. Employees are now grappling with the loss of their social and work connections and an unprecedented (and stressful) intersection of working and family life. These circumstances have taken a universal toll on well-being, and in many households, the heaviest burden has fallen on women.
We know there is no benefit to everyone being the same. People across all identities, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, from all lifestyles, have unique, inherent strengths to offer. When all diverse perspectives are welcomed to the table, progress and innovation can happen. Leaders have a collective responsibility and opportunity to continue advancing this kind of positive change. When we do this boldly, alongside the execution of pragmatic programmes that ensure progress, we’ll have a real shot at creating workplaces that are more flexible, open and fit for the needs of the future.
By Laura Hayter, FTI Consulting