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How to Create a Great Workplace for Women

September 15, 2016, 11:00 AM UTC
Scarlett Photography

Kim Greenspan is working to strengthen the voices of women at her organization one dollar at a time.

Greenspan, the marketing director at professional services firm Plante Moran, noticed herself and other women saying “I’m sorry” when they didn’t need to—for example, interjecting an opinion into a conference call or making a trivial mistake.

“I’m putting a ‘Sorry Jar’ on my desk,” Greenspan wrote in an e-mail to female colleagues at Plante Moran. “And I’m putting $1 in it every time I say ‘I’m sorry’ for all the wrong reasons. Join me if you like.” She also promised to clean out the jar every month and buy candy and treats for the staff with the money. “Soon it should be empty, and we’ll be starving for sugar,” she joked. “But feeling so much more empowered.”

Greenspan’s stop-the-sorry campaign gets at the heart of what makes a great workplace for women today: a culture that actively helps female employees have a strong say in their company.

We discovered this recently when our organization, consulting and research firm Great Place to Work, worked with Fortune to produce the 2016 100 Best Workplaces for Women list. Our study of several hundred U.S. companies of different sizes found that a key difference between women’s and men’s experience at work has to do with the ability to communicate with company leaders and the belief that executives are listening.

On average, women are less likely than men to feel involved in decisions, that they can get a straight answer from managers, and that leaders are easy to talk to.

By contrast, the 2016 Best Workplaces for Women are much better at creating environments where women believe they can speak up. At those leading companies, women have higher scores on these survey statements compared with women at non-winning companies:

  • Management involves people in decisions that affect their jobs or work environment.
  • I can ask management any reasonable question and get a straight answer.
  • Management is approachable, easy to talk with.


“The ability to have an open dialogue with leaders is critical to a positive perception of fairness at work,” says Holly Petroff, executive vice president of consulting at Great Place to Work. “When people feel their workplace isn’t fair, it may be because they don’t have enough information to make an accurate assessment. When employees are well-informed, it gives them more information about the rationale behind why decisions are made.”

In the Best Workplaces for Women, where lines of communication between employees and top leaders are healthier than their non-winning counterparts, this helps keeps perceptions of unfairness at bay.

And the Winners Are…

The No. 1 Best Workplace for Women is Texas Health Resources, a nonprofit health system where women make up three-quarters of the workforce and represent two-thirds of mid-level or senior managers. Texas Heath Resources, which has 18,381 employees, was also No. 1 on our 2016 list of Best Workplaces for Healthcare.

Rounding out the top five winners for 2016 are Child Trends (2), Build-A-Bear (3), Ultimate Software (4) and PrimeLending (5). Other noteworthy winners are Plante Moran (29); Marriott International (81), which is the biggest list winner, with 102,301 employees; Keeping Matters Current (9), whose 12 employees make it the smallest on the list; and Bright Horizons Family Solutions (98), whose 18,826-person workforce is 95% women, the most of any organization.

The Best Workplaces for Women list ranks the top 100 companies from Great Place to Work-Certified organizations rated most favorably by women, and where women are strongly represented as a total percentage of the workforce and within management.

Elevating Women in the Workplace

In America overall, women still feel like they face roadblocks to getting ahead. In a Pew Research Center survey released last month, 53% of Americans and 63% of women say significant obstacles continue to make it harder for women to get ahead then men. A 2015 study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company also found that corporate America is not on the road to gender equality. “Women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership,” the report concluded.

Given a legacy of sexism in American offices, many of the leading workplaces for women recognize the importance of helping female employees elevate themselves professionally. Consider the “Women at Baird” event held every other year at financial services firm Baird—number 96 on our list. The gathering focuses on developing new relationships and strengthening existing ones among Baird associates. The 2015 event’s theme was “20/20 Vision: Focus on your future with clarity, courage and commitment,” and included programming centered on career progression. More than 400 associates attended.

Amid efforts such as these, Baird’s women appreciate their workplace culture. “Being listened to and having my opinions and perspectives valued, respected, and often implemented, provides a level of job satisfaction that cannot be bought,” one female employee at Baird told us. “I do not feel like I am just a cog in the wheel, never capable of effecting changing or streamlining our model. I feel empowered, and empowerment is probably the key to satisfaction.”

Role Models, Development Opportunities, Flexibility and Fair Pay

Other significant features of great workplaces for women are female role models in management, opportunities for development, attention to work-life integration, and fair pay.

At this year’s winning organizations, women don’t have to look far for role models. On average, these workplaces have more women than men in middle and upper management. And 39% of executives and senior managers are female, compared to 28% of executives and senior managers at non-winning companies.

Workplaces where women thrive also offer mentorships with both female and male senior leaders, as well as readily-available training offerings—something that employees of both genders say they want. In fact, in our analysis of 7,000 comments from women at the winning organizations, development opportunities represented the most consistently discussed topic when asked what makes the organization a great place to work.

“These organizations are as likely to support women and men getting ahead in business as they are to help them juggle the dueling demands of their work and non-work lives,” says Laurie Minott, a partner at Great Place to Work. “Women—and men—want workplaces that get the importance of both professional growth and personal well-being.”

Click table to enlarge.


Regardless of gender, employees at the Best Workplaces for Women are more likely to say they’re paid fairly than employees at non-winners. Eighty percent of women and 83% of men at list winners feel they’re paid fairly for their work, compared to 71% of women and 74% of men at non-winners. In addition, 75% of women and 77% of men feel they receive a fair share of the organization’s profits, compared with 64% of women and 65% of men at non-list winners.

List Winners Come From Fields Traditionally More Open to Women

A close examination of this year’s list reveals that at least a third of the organizations are in what traditionally have been thought of as “women’s fields”: industries such as health care, retail, hospitality, and child care.

But even that is changing. Along with those historically women-centric industries, a full 25% of organizations on this year’s list are in traditionally male-dominated professional services such as accounting, law and advertising. Another 10 are in tech, an industry that has been widely criticized for its lack of diversity. Those organizations’ inclusion among the top workplaces for women is a step in the right direction.

Still, if being a great workplace for women is about treating each gender equally with regard to voice in company decisions, development, and pay—big challenges remain for business. It will take considerable work to overcome systemic biases and cultural stereotypes that hinder women in the workplace, and for women’s contributions (not to menion paychecks) to receive their equal due. When that happens, Kim Greene’s “Sorry Jar” will likely be empty. And we’ll all be grateful.


Jessica Rohman and Tabitha Russell are Director of Content and Certification Program Manager, 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 Best Workplaces for Women.