The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you play a role in advancing workplace equality?” is written by Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University.
While significant progress has been made in gender equality since my earliest days of gender rights activism 40 years ago, in 2017, women are still not getting the development opportunities and support they need to move up the organizational ladder. The pipeline of women moving into mid-level and senior management positions is simply not growing fast enough. And while women make up just under half of the total U.S. workforce, fewer than 20% of seats on corporate boards are currently held by women.
The results of the Women in the Workplace 2016 report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org are quite clear: “In corporate America, women fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step.” Commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, but companies are struggling to put this commitment into practice. It’s therefore incumbent upon everyone in a leadership position—from academia to government to corporate boardrooms—to strongly support and enable gender inclusivity.
When I was elected the first female president of Bentley University almost a decade ago, enabling the advancement of women in the corporate world became one of my top priorities. With the help of passionate advocates for gender equality and corporate leaders dedicated to the cause, I founded Bentley’s Center for Women and Business (CWB) to help corporations recruit, retain, and advance women in the workplace through concrete action steps and thought leadership. The center works with faculty, staff, and students—male and female—to better prepare the next generation of female business leaders while delivering programs to help working women and their companies succeed.
However, workplace diversity cannot be solved with recruitment efforts alone. The onus remains on corporate leadership to proactively set the tone at the top and foster a culture that supports equality in the workplace. Here are a few tangible ways companies can make changes that support this mission:
Encourage mentorship and sponsorship
Access to a mentor or sponsor—through either a formal or informal company program—is crucial to positively influencing an individual’s career path, especially for young, entry-level employees. Early on in my career, I was fortunate to have the support of a boss who had earned a presidential appointment in Washington DC—something few women before her had accomplished. She showed me time and again that anything is possible, and the lessons she taught me continue to guide my career today.
We need to reinforce that people’s differences, whether they be in race, gender, or management style, offer them unique perspectives that drive success, change, and inclusiveness within organizations. Hiring and promoting can cause leaders to look for someone just like them. But that attitude ultimately leaves many women behind—regardless of whether it’s conscious or unconscious.
The National Football League instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003, requiring teams to interview minority candidates for open head coaching positions. I’ve incorporated this idea into my own hiring experiences, requiring my teams to put together a strong, diverse pool of candidates that are equally qualified for the job. At times, I’ve sent the list back if the applicant pool did not display enough diversity. Building a diverse workforce is possible with a modicum of due diligence and a directive from leadership to achieve the result.
Recognize productivity, not hours
It’s ingrained in our culture that working long hours shows dedication, and that people should be rewarded for staying late or working all night. As a leader, reinforce the value of productivity. Working 60-plus hours per week doesn’t necessarily equate to high-quality, impactful work. Employers must focus on an employee’s contribution to the team and recognize those who excel and exceed their goals.
Personally, I’ve been proud to watch the tremendous personal and professional growth of a young woman on my staff. She has recently started her own family and with a young child at home, often needs flexibility to raise and support her son. Missing a morning of work for a family commitment is not an issue when an employee is fulfilling their obligations.
Employers and employees can’t be afraid to advocate for a company culture that promotes diversity. Only through our deliberate and collective action can we build a more equal workforce, and more importantly, retain employees who will form the next generation of leaders.