Gender at work: moving from diversity to inclusion

Published 14th March 2018 by Investors In People

Gender at work: how does diversity differ from inclusion?

We’ve looked at the differences between diversity and inclusion in detail: with regard to gender, diversity is simply a spectrum to describe the degree of gender variation in the workplace. This commonly varies across different parts of the organisation, such as the frontline, line managers, senior leaders and the board. Organisations often target diversity measures at a particular level, such as increasing female representation on the board.

Inclusion is very different. It’s about how individuals and groups feel in the workplace. Miller and Katz (2002) define inclusion as: “.. a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others so that you can do your best.” When it comes to inclusion, it’s the individual’s perception that counts.

Having male change agents seek out and reinforce female feedback in meetings can help encourage positive female participation.

This is an important point. We can’t judge our progress on inclusion without knowing how people feel. Research from Boston Consulting Group found that men – when asked whether their organisation has made progress on gender diversity in the past one to three years – were on average 12 percentage points more likely to say yes than women.

Gender inclusion: how can organisations turn the dial?

Be clever and committed when it comes to flexible working

With flexible working, it’s important to focus on both men and women in order to drive the inclusion agenda. Boston Consulting Group say that “flexible work will never become a realistic option for all unless men explicitly support it.” This is because giving men the opportunity and confidence to work flexibly positively impacts women.

Why is this? Research from Henley Business School and Avenir Consulting found men working flexibly and taking an active child caring role has a positive impact on female career progression. It also found that, when men played an equal or main caregiver role in childcare, 47% of female partners had progressed their career since having had children. The Boston Consulting Group research also suggests that flexible working for both genders helps dual-career households better manage work-life balance, which can encourage female career development.

However, flexible working policies by themselves aren’t enough, because they may increase diversity but not necessarily inclusion. Organisations must be supportive of those working flexibly, for example by communicating when they will and won’t be available and ensuring they take steps to mitigate against the unfortunate managerial bias to rank visible employees as more productive than those working remotely.Without these steps, flexible working policies can increase diversity but isolate individuals.

Embrace role models and change agents

Moving from diversity to inclusion will likely involve cultural change. Research from McKinsey [PDF] found that 48% of best-in-class companies have role models and change agents embracing diversity compared to 33% in other companies in their sample.

Successful inclusion is driven by interpersonal dynamics because the way others treat us strongly influences how we feel. Therefore having role models and change agents committed to helping people feel included, and encouraging others to do the same, is a key success factor.

Research suggests that women speak up less than men in meetings and that, even when they speak less, they are perceived to have spoken more. [PDF] Having male change agents seek out and reinforce female feedback in meetings can help encourage positive female participation.

Consider how structure and rules can encourage gender inclusion

Organisations should consider how historical rules and structures may be – especially when combined with unconscious biases – putting the brakes on inclusion.

For example, the researchers above who looked at meeting participation by gender actually found that changing the rules of interaction and decision-making increased female participation to levels aligned with their male counterparts.

Flexible working for both genders helps dual-career households better manage work-life balance, which can encourage female career development.

The inequality in talking time disappeared when participants had to decide by unanimous vote instead of majority rule, which the women in the study found empowering when outnumbered by men.

Encourage CEO buy-in around inclusion and wellbeing

McKinsey research found that companies leading the way in gender equality have strong support from their CEOs, who are committed to entrenching gender diversity at all management levels. In best-in-class organisations, this commitment also filters down strongly to senior leaders and management.

However, there is a common weakness in how well the commitment filters down to middle managers, who of course directly influence the experience of employees on the ground. To move from diversity to inclusion, middle managers must be fully bought into the CEO’s strategic vision, otherwise there can be a disconnect between strategy and the frontline.

In addition to viewing inclusion as a strategic priority, it’s important CEOs view wellbeing as a strategy priority because this is intrinsically linked to inclusion. After all, inclusion and belonging are core wellbeing indicators for human beings.

Focus on fairness and equal opportunity

A core part of inclusion is feeling respected and treated equally compared to other workers. Companies are more likely to address unfair treatment when it is blatant, but there are areas where women are more likely to be treated unfairly that aren’t so obvious.

For example, an organisation could set the date and times of social events to suit the majority of workers, who work full-time in the office, to the detriment of those working flexibly (who at the moment are much more likely to be women). Women will therefore be less likely to attend these occasions, increasing isolation and reducing opportunities to build closeness with colleagues.

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