Employers searching for an elusive mixture of perks and professional development programs to retain female talent might do well to take a step back. As the recently announced 100 Best Workplaces for Women reveals, many of the biggest strengths shared by these leading companies are also some of the most basic: rewarding work, a level playing field, and inclusive decision-making.
Start with the fundamentals
Employee resource groups and other programs supporting women’s advancement provide real value, particularly in industries where women are under-represented. But they’re no substitute for creating a great workplace.
At their core, the 100 Best Workplaces for Women demonstrate a high degree of respect for people and their personal needs. At the top of the list, financial adviser TrueWealth diverts a share of its profits into employee 401(k)s, pays 100 percent of employee health insurance premiums, and sponsors monthly happy hours, along with bigger social events like box-seat baseball outings. Leaders at SAS, a large software developer, make it their business to solve problems for their employees in and out of the workplace. Says one female employee, “SAS places an emphasis on work-life balance. They achieve that by providing many services on campus to make life easier, from professional advancement — employees are able to take SAS classes, certification exams, virtual and e-learning — to personal conveniences — on-site healthcare, child care, pharmacy, cafes, fitness and the list goes on.”
More broadly, the 100 Best Workplaces for Women stand out for creating workplaces where employees fundamentally trust each other. More than 90 percent of the companies’ female employees are confident they make a difference in their roles, while having fun working with a cooperative team. Just as many describe competent and ethical leaders, who treat them with respect as professionals and as people with lives outside their jobs. Ninety-three percent even say they look forward to going to work. For any company wanting to attract, retain and advance women, it’s critical to offer an environment and a culture that employees are inspired to engage with in the first place.
Focus on fairness
Survey responses from 277,654 employees show that women experience less fairness in the workplace than their male colleagues, particularly with regard to favoritism, pay, employee recognition and promotions. Among the companies that appear on the list, however, women’s experiences are more in line with men’s.
The upshot for corporate leaders is that practices surrounding raises, performance evaluations and how managers interact with individual team members merit extra scrutiny. These also happen to be areas where formal programs can make a real difference. For example, efforts at Edward Jones to increase gender diversity include a roughly 400-member Women’s Business Forum to encourage networking and interaction with senior employees. The company also boasts more than 5,000 mentors helping its newest financial advisers learn the business, in addition to a similar number of field trainers.
At CHG Healthcare Services, employees note the accessibility of senior leaders. Says one, “On my first week of training, I had lunch with our president and vice presidents in a small setting in order to get to know them. I felt so special that the higher-ups in our company truly care about us as individuals. Since my first week, I have seen our upper management around the building and have no problem walking up to them and striking up a conversation.”
Efforts like these to improve career development and mentorship opportunities need not be gender-specific. But survey data suggest extra attention should be paid to ensure women benefit from the relationships and opportunities of their workplace to the same degree as men.
Equity in pay, promotions, and recognition opportunities are essential measures of workplace fairness. But our survey of women’s work experiences shine a spotlight on another potential blind spot that deserves attention from corporate leaders: day-to-day interaction with managers.
For example, 86 percent of women employed by the 100 Best Workplaces for Women find their managers involve subordinates in decisions affecting them, compared to just 70 percent of women at companies that didn’t make the list. Among the leading companies, 91 percent of female team members say their superiors genuinely seek and respond to ideas, compared to 77 percent among the other companies.
These kinds of quality interactions with managers are a pivotal area, where gender influences employees’ experiences. Overall, most men and women rate their workplaces similarly. Across most of the 58 measures assessing workplace quality and trust, survey results from male and female employees at eligible companies differed by 1 percent or less. Women at non-winning companies, however, are 4 to 7 percent less likely than their male counterparts to say they’re consulted on decisions, get direct answers to their questions or are kept in the loop on information they need to do their jobs. This lack of access to information and people is not only a restraint to their careers and day-to-day enjoyment of their workplace, but it costs their businesses a reduction in ideas, performance and employee engagement. In contrast, these gender differences virtually disappear among employees surveyed from the 100 Best.
It’s worth pointing out that the 100 Best Workplaces for Women had slightly more women in their top leadership — an average of 39 percent of executive roles, versus 34 percent among all eligible companies. As employers seek to attract equitable gender representation in all industries and roles, it will take more than just offering women that opportunity. The best employers deliver a great workplace experience for all.
Sarah Kulin-Lewis and Peter Barnes are vice-president & senior editor, and consulting editor, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists, including the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials, and the inaugural ranking of the 100 Best Workplaces for Women. To see the full list go to fortune.com/best-workplaces-for-women/.