Diversity: Going beyond lofty ideals
If the companies are serious about diversity & inclusion, they must think through what it takes to sustain women in the workforce
What is the RoI on hiring women? This question stopped me midway during a session on diversity and inclusion. I was nonplussed because nobody asks you that question for fear of being labeled either a chauvinist or being politically incorrect. But somebody actually did! Now, if I had applauded him for having the courage to do so, I would be labeled one too and if I put him down I might have sent wrong culture signals to the leadership.
But fate had its own way to solve my dilemma. As I paused weighing my response, my colleague took this as a sign to continue his tirade and did so in front of the entire leadership.
He was not a chauvinist neither was he against diversity and inclusion at the workplace. He had an altogether practical issue that he was grappling with!
He had a team of 15, of which 40 per cent were women. He was running a critical project with weekly deliverables and high penalties for missing deadlines. Four out of the six women in his team were preparing to go on maternity leave. So what is the issue you may ask?
The issue was not that they were going on maternity leave but his manager was not allowing him to take the cost for these resources from his project nor giving him any leeway on his goals. He could have added a few more resources, but he would not have met his profitability numbers.
He obviously was frustrated! Now, going forward what do you think he is going to do when he hires for his team? This is how the vicious cycle begins and leads to such abysmal levels of participation of women in the workforce.
Most companies have lofty ideals and diversity targets, but very few really are able to realize their visions. It is because these lofty ideals fail at the altar of simple execution and quarterly margin pressures.
If the companies are serious then (in this scenario), they must think through what it takes to sustain women in the workforce. Yes! The question is not that of entry, but sustainability. Every new batch of freshers that come in, around 30 to 40 per cent are women but this slowly drops to 5-10 per cent by the sixth year and drops to 1-3 per cent in the tenth year if you are lucky; if you are not then it is zero! When entry becomes the focus, the vision becomes a lofty burden you cannot afford to carry in a market place that is becoming increasingly aggressive and competitive.
The dropouts take place because of various reasons like marriage, spouse relocation, child birth, child rearing, parental care etc. The truth is women carry a disproportionate part of the burden in all of the above. For any company to sustain women, they need to be able to understand the above and design systems and processes that allow women to manage through their life phases. This is the transformation of lofty ideals to execution. Here are some ideas that I have seen work:
1. Stress Test all D&I processes: Clearly, a stress test would have prevented my colleague from going through what he did. A stress test sounds onerous, but it is actually very simple. Every time a process is designed or a policy is formulated, this stress test is performed. The stress test is asking a set of questions that helps us understand the impact on our diversity initiative. It could even be sent to a select group of people to critique and test before rolling out.
2. Stop the ‘I am doing a favor’ mindset: You are not doing a favor or charity. You will have a serious problem if 50 per cent of your population cannot participate in the workforce. That is severe depletion of the workforce where talent is already scarce. Talk about it as a business imperative, a talent initiative. Take it off the lofty pedestal and allow it to stand on practical legs! It will very strongly… don’t worry.
3. Train your managers and key decision makers: The truth is most managers don’t know how to deal with a pregnant team member. They don’t understand the first trimester issues. Forget pregnant team member, most managers don’t realize the difficulty of getting an auto after 7pm or waiting in the bus stop in the evening. This includes women managers too. Learning sessions that allow for managers to learn and figure out how to do so would do the trick!
4. Integrate diversity in all your programs: This can’t be a standalone initiative. You have to include diversity when you design a talent management program, succession plans, metrics management – it has to be a part of every relevant initiative that you roll out.
5. Measure the lead metrics: How many women you have in leadership is the lag metric and how many you have at other stages is lead metric. This is the pipeline that will fill your positions later. Likewise, how many applications do you receive is as important as how many hires you make.
6. Mentor-mentees: Be an organization that accommodates what the special group (in this case, women) wants to achieve. A great way to ensure their skills are leveraged is having an active mentor-mentee program in place.
The success lies in the details. This applies for not just gender diversity but for all inclusion activities.
As a parting note the same manager who asked what is the RoI on employing women confided that he is at the receiving end at home as his spouse had to take a break to take care of their child. The loss of a second income with increased expenses was a big strain and he wished his spouse’s company did something about it. It is important we take the rhetoric and platitudes out of our diversity and inclusion initiatives and instead focus on getting things done.
As always please let me know your comments.