It is time for organizations to double down on creating workplaces of belonging and inclusion, or risk losing their women.
According to the McKinsey and LeanIn.org 2020 Women in the Workplace study, two million women are estimated to consider taking a leave of absence or leaving the workplace altogether due to Covid-19. Close to one million women have already left the workplace. This is the first time in six-years that women have left work at a pace far greater than men and this unprecedented departure threatens to undo years of hard work in the direction of achieving gender balance in the workplace, leaving aside for the moment the strides we must be taking towards achieving gender balance in leadership.
It will take organizations a lot to keep their women. So organizations must first understand why diversity really matters and commit to getting serious about keeping their women.
Diversity leads to higher-quality work, better decision-making, and greater team satisfaction. When done well, it impacts not only the company’s bottom line but the lives of its employees and everyone in the organization’s ecosystem, including clients, customers, vendors and suppliers. Organizations with whom I consult want higher quality products and happier, more productive teams; yet when it comes to doing the hard work, there is still resistance. Homogeneity is easier. If we are serious about changing things, we must actually believe that change will result in better.
I coach women in leadership because women leaders create the conditions for themselves and others to thrive. Research in a 2019 Harvard Business Review Article shows that women are thought to be more effective than men in 84% of the competencies that are frequently developed in leadership including, among other things, taking initiative, resilience, self-development, driving for results, displaying honesty and integrity, developing, inspiring and motivating others.
Strong listening skills and empathetic leadership leads to outstanding results. For example, in showcasing Jacinda Arden’s leadership in New Zealand, the Atlantic wrote that New Zealand’s Prime Minister “may be the most effective leader on the planet.” Describing her style as one, “focused on empathy,” that “isn’t just resonating with her people; it’s putting the country on track for success against the coronavirus.” Leading with empathy is one of the most important things people in organizations can do to build more diversity and inclusion.
Organizations must double down on building psychological safety at work. Thanks to Amy Edmonson’s work at Harvard and Google’s Project Aristotle, many are familiar with the term psychological safety and know that it leads to more effective teams. But in practice, and as it relates to diversity, creating psychological safety means fostering an environment where we can talk honestly about the vulnerabilities we feel around privilege and discrimination, inclusion and exclusion, without fear of punishment or retribution.
We must learn to share what we don’t know, what makes us uncomfortable, what feels unfair and how we can work collectively to tackle systemic barriers to inclusion and promotion. Using tried and tested methods of communication like Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication model, Nancy Kline’s thinking rounds or the Young Presidents Organization’s model for forums which includes listening, accepting and sharing are all good places to start. And leaders of organizations must be doing this work themselves. Without them engaging, role modeling, practicing and leading from the front, change will not happen.
Belonging and inclusion mean diverse ideas, perspectives and people are considered when decisions are made. Organizations must be rigorously thoughtful about who gets access to information, how people communicate and what gets considered when it's time to decide. There must be regular acts of courageous leadership, speaking truth to power and insisting on diversity in leadership, in talent pipelines and on boards.
In embracing the collective awakening to barriers to promotion and, at times like these, even to staying at work, we need to explore deeply the extent to which stereotypes or assumptions are at play in the organization. Who is included and who is not? What voices get heard? Who has real power and how did they get that power? Even NASDAQ is embracing equality with their proposed new listing rules that will require all of the companies listed on the US exchange to require at least two diverse directors on boards, one of which must be a woman.
"We are human beings, not human doings."
Finally, we all need to have real conversations about the way we work. As the Dalai Lama said, we are human beings, not human doings. We need to take a hard look at what we are demanding and what we get in return. In what is currently a remote only environment for many of us, can we be flexible about how and when we respond to work related inquiries? In making work sustainable, we must ask what are our goals, the scope of our projects and how we agree to certain timelines? This requires clarity about expectations and why they matter, and consideration of the whole person working, particularly working mothers, working single mothers, working women caring for others and women working to care for themselves.