As we face unprecedented challenges, I feel it is time to see gender equity for what it truly can be: a foundation to build stronger companies, communities and families. The key to this is equity across all genders. In my experience, companies and communities that are more equitable toward women are also, hands down, better for men.
It is important to acknowledge that this recent global health crisis has brought to light a number of inequities that women face, and these may now be even further exacerbated, including access to health care, education, clean water and technology, as well as the disproportional impact of increased care obligations, increased domestic violence and less access to safety and legal protections. These disparities impact women in both urban and rural areas, in mature and emerging markets, and in all types of work. While some of these may be visible, many are highly invisible.
Companies cannot solve all matters in our hearts and minds, but they can be influential in these moments of uncertainty. While we may not be able to control our external environments and the crises in front of us, I believe, as leaders, we can advocate for more equitable and inclusive workplaces. Not only do these inclusive workplaces pay and promote more equitably, but, by doing so, they also benefit families and the communities in which their employees live and contribute. When companies provide healthy and power-balanced workplaces, it can lead to better decision-making, impacting both careers and lives.
In my role as D&I leader at EY, equity is something I think about all year long, across all genders and ethnicities. Not only do I believe offering equitable opportunities is the right thing to do, but research also supports its success. Organizations with teams of different genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and perspectives perform better overall. In fact, our study with the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that companies with at least 30% women leaders could gain up to 6 percentage points to their net margin and 15 percentage points more to revenues. Diverse teams tend to be more accurate, take fewer unnecessary risks, and to be more understanding and empathetic of their customers’ needs.
As we enter this uncharted territory in many of our careers, a renewed focus on gender equity is of the utmost importance. While things have matured in many workplaces, there is still more work to be done. So, what will it take to make a difference?
One could start with creating an equitable workplace environment where individuals across genders have the same opportunities to succeed. This is more than creating programs that are inclusive, it is fostering an environment where all people feel a sense of belonging. This is not merely a nice-to-do in times of normalcy or abundance — inclusion is a stabilizer in times of scarcity, unease and concern.
At EY, we have been on our journey for some time, and, while it may not always be perfect, we are consistently striving to be better. Below are three ways that have helped us move the needle toward a more equitable and inclusive workplace.
Advocating for working parents
Among married-couple families with children, 63% of the time, both parents are employed, and millennials are almost twice as likely as their baby boomer counterparts to be part of a dual-career couple. Care issues are significant across all genders, although they tend to place a disproportionate burden on women during crises like the one in which we are in today. It is even more apparent for those without the ability to work virtually, whose roles deem them essential, adding the burden of safety at work to care concerns.
Soon, I hope that we will all be healthy and back to business as, more or less, usual, and we will need to be steadfast in tending to our top talent. As family and gender roles change globally, companies can consider evolving their benefits like parental leave and providing their people with the tools and resources needed to support their lives outside of work.
For parental leave, that means giving new parents an opportunity to prioritize their families during critical times of their lives and helping them bond with their children, which, in turn, can boost their engagement levels at work. According to our research with the Peterson Institute, companies with comprehensive parental leave policies also have better capabilities to build a sustainable pipeline of female talent. This benefit can help foster a company culture where everyone can feel like they belong and can bring their full selves to work.
For dual-career parents during these unprecedented times, this means encouraging them to be transparent about their personal situations and allowing flexibility to get their jobs done. This will allow working parents to have open and honest conversations with colleagues, leaders and teams to effectively collaborate and handle deadlines or assignments. Conversations like this, and the resulting flexibility, can be helpful as many may be left in compromised situations, such as having to prioritize one partner’s work responsibilities while the other handles family obligations like schooling and caregiving.
Advocating for equitable sponsorship
Equitable sponsorship is an integral part of our journey toward building a more inclusive culture. It is how we help build careers and advocate for the advancement of others, and it gives people access to the meaningful work experiences, coaching, influential relationships and networks they need to succeed.
Women and underrepresented ethnic groups are often over-mentored and under-sponsored, according to a study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). Mentors stand beside us, whereas a sponsor stands in front of us, helping guide us forward. It is common for people to inadvertently look to sponsor those who look or act like them and, to change this pattern, we’re engaging both men and women in the conversation and encouraging them to sponsor colleagues of all genders and diversity dimensions.
With today’s virtual working world, it can be more challenging to build connections and establish relationships. We need to increase the intentionality of sponsorship to provide equitable opportunities across genders and backgrounds. In my experience, the best leaders I know have a long-standing commitment to inclusive leadership and equitable sponsorship — across all genders — in their career portfolios.
Sponsoring employees also leads to better engagement and the retention of talented people. CTI research found that women with a sponsor are 22% more likely than those without a sponsor to ask for a stretch assignment, and 85% of working mothers with sponsors stay in the workforce, compared to 58% of those going at it alone.
Office “housework” assignments, which are necessary but often unsung — such as note taking or scheduling meetings — take up time and create inequality among some employees. In fact, research from Joan Williams shows that women and underrepresented ethnic groups are more likely to do more of these tasks than their white, male counterparts, who are more likely to receive “glamour work” assignments that result in better recognition and visibility with management.
By addressing this disparity, companies can improve employee engagement and increase the retention of talented employees. Rather than asking for volunteers, where people feel social pressure to step up, managers can establish a process whereby everyone has an equal turn to partake in office housework. For the higher profile, “glamour” assignments, leaders should consider all eligible employees, not just those who ask for it or those who may come to mind first.
In the pursuit of gender equity, there is no quick fix. It requires the collective action of leaders to improve equitable environments, whether physical or virtual, so that all may thrive in both their professional and personal lives.
I believe it was Freud who said the two most important things for humanity are “love and work,” and after taking care of the health of ourselves, our families and our communities, perhaps together we can also learn from these current experiences to more equitably share in work, to more openly share who we care for and even who we may love.
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