When Ernst & Young sent out an invitation last week to a roundtable discussion about gender bias in the workplace, it was widely — and wrongly — believed that a woman would be president-elect by the time the event took place on Nov. 10.
The day the email went out, the New York Times was predicting Hillary Clinton had an 87% chance of becoming the 45th President of the United States.
“[Our new] survey examines the preferences of employed Americans around these issues in the workplace and addresses topics related to the election,” the EY email read, “such as Americans’ sentiment on women in the workplace should there be a female president-elect.”
But the conversation over bagels with EY’s global diversity & inclusiveness officer, Karyn Twaronite, about the transition to America’s first woman as Commander-in-Chief was not to be.
Instead, the day after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become president-elect, Twaronite’s inbox swelled with concerns. She received about 300 emails with questions about issues from visas and immigration to women’s rights.
“We want to make sure people know they won’t get in trouble for asking questions,” she said.
EY says its company-wide policies aim to combat natural biases with discipline in order to improve their employee diversity and foster an inclusive environment. These efforts can be difficult and, at times, expensive, said Twaronite, but she is convinced they’re worth it.
She pointed to a study by the Peterson Institute study which found that companies with more women in leadership are more profitable.
“Diversity and inclusion is not a fairness play, not solely an equity play.” Twaronite said “It’s a business play. People want to make money.”
Employees at EY are 45% women and 35% ethnic minorities, according to the company. Recruiting, workplace environment, and advancement practices have to focus on retention and inclusion, Twaronite said, because their clients often ask specifically about the diversity of teams and cite it as a reason they choose to do business with them.
One facet of their diversity efforts is devoting resources to research biases that affect the work environment.
Leading up to the presidential election, EY conducted a survey about identities and biases in the workplace. Many of the questions, put to 1,000 anonymous full-time workers, focused on the perception of women in leadership positions.
The results found that 45% of respondents felt a woman president would have inspired a younger generation of women to ‘strive for more’ in their professional lives, but 63% of survey takers still felt it would not have been enough to break the glass ceiling.
“There’s a perception that women are not as ambitions as men which has repeatedly proven to not be true,” said Twaronite during the Thursday morning discussion.
About half of survey respondents reported experiencing negative bias in the workplace, with the largest number feeling their race or ethnicity contributed, followed by gender.
Steve Howe, EY’s US chairman and Americas managing partner, addressed the staff in a company-wide memo on Nov 9.
“I personally believe that the business community can and will be a catalyst for healing,” he wrote to EY employees. Howe went on to encourage people to “support, connect and dialogue with each other.”
Twaronite acknowledged that there is room for corporate America to take on a bigger role in bolstering an inclusive atmosphere across the country and is hopeful that the election will allow for a more open dialogue.
“I think there are still people that think it’s a nice-to-have not a need-to-have,” she said of emphasis on diversity, but noted that is likely to change moving forward as the more multicultural millennial generation has a larger presence in the workforce.