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5 actionable steps to increase gender diversity in your workplace

"When I was 23, I received feedback from a more senior male member of my consulting team that I should try to smile more because I come across intense when asking questions or delivering analysis. This is pretty typical feedback that women get—that we should be polished, friendly, and soft." Elaine Szu, VP of Marketing at Narvar

Elaine Szu’s experience in the workplace is not an uncommon one. Unfortunately, despite well-documented research on the benefits of workplace diversity, gender inequality persists in the global workplace. Today, only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, the gender wage gap is still estimated at about 23 percent, and unconscious gender bias continues to hinder progress towards true balance. Equal representation in the workplace leads to enhanced communication, improved company reputation, and increased profitability. In fact, a recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company revealed that gender-diverse companies are 21% more like to experience above-average profitability.

Fittingly, this year’s International Women’s Day (Friday, March 8th, 2019) campaign theme is #balanceforbetter, an initiative to build a gender balanced world in the boardroom, government, media, and beyond. Acknowledgement and awareness is only the first step. To truly drive change within your company, you need to take action. 

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We spoke to several remarkable leaders in the Bay Area who have worked with us on people and talent strategies to gather their insights and advice. The following are 5 actionable steps to increase gender diversity in the workplace:

1. Start out with a diverse team.

If you’re looking to make your first functional hire, then you’re in an ideal position to create a balanced work culture. 

“I’ve found that when you set out to achieve balance from day one, you can accomplish it without a lot of friction. It’s a lot harder to fix imbalances after the fact. Also, if your initial team is diverse, then they will naturally bring in referrals that reflect that diversity," says Miriam Aguirre, SVP of Engineering at Skills.

Formalize the interview process so that everyone is asked the same set of questions and evaluated on the same criteria. Ensure that company collateral represents your company well (i.e. check that team pages, ads, and company photos on websites like Glassdoor include non-binary people and women). 

2. Eliminate gendered word descriptions.

“I am careful not to use the phrase “female engineer” in the workplace since the phrase qualifies a difference that, to me, is irrelevant," says Vivian Cromwell, CEO of Chop. "I believe we should be evaluating each other on the merits of our work rather than our gender."

Take a critical look at job descriptions before posting. You may be surprised how some words can suggest a toxic culture (see: toxic bro culture) and discourage female applicants. Replace problematic terms like “work hard, play hard”, “rockstar”, and “ninja” with inclusive terms like “flexible schedule”, “imaginative” and “resilient”. Some fantastic resources to check for gender bias in job descriptions include Textio, a “spellcheck” for unconscious bias, and this gender decoder for job postings.

3. Mentor young women in the workplace.

While many companies include “diversity training” in their HR processes, some find that this training alone may be detrimental to diversity. Specifically, a 9.2 percent decline in the number of underrepresented groups in management may occur as a result of resistance to the mandatory nature of programs like these. So, how can we ensure that women are given the opportunity to achieve a leadership position? According to a recent study by Heidrick & Struggles, more than three in four respondents said mentorship was important to their career development.

“Don’t undervalue the power of networking, and it’s a good idea to find a mentor, says Emily Eagon, Finance at Medium. "My experience is there is a lot to gain from mentors both within and outside of your particular industry or job function.”

Anjali Jameson, Product Executive at Rally Health, also believes in the importance of mentoring. "I have built up a small group of people who act as mentors, advice givers and connectors," she says. "When a new challenge arises, I reach out to the person who I think would be most helpful for that particular situation. It has been incredibly useful to have strong support in a variety of disciplines.”

Consider incorporating formalized mentor programs, or offering scholarships (like this hacker school scholarship offered to Women by Esty). The goal of these programs and scholarships should be to arm underrepresented groups with skills that will make them more competitive, and increase their access their visibility in strategic networks. 

4. Expand flexible work-life policies.

The idea of “unlimited PTO” has become a popular competitive benefit, originating in the Silicon Valley startup scene. Unfortunately, many employees feel that they may face repercussions (however subtle) should they take advantage of these generous policies.  Inflexible work arrangements affect female employees disproportionally, particularly when it comes to childcare. Integrating a policy that considers common issues that minority groups face can increase employee retention and foster a supportive work culture.

“It seems to me that the stigma around working parents is changing," says Erica Alioto, Head of People and Development, Opendoor. "Companies are becoming more comfortable with work-from-home arrangements, allowing parents to more easily balance family and work. My team knows that if I trust them and they get their work done, then I don’t worry about where they do their work.”

Other benefits, like paid maternity leave, can help mitigate the mid-career wage penalty (the amount by which women’s earnings fall compared with their earnings a year before giving birth). 

5. Level the playing field.

Making it a business priority to build a diverse team benefits both parties. Leveling the playing field increases opportunities for women and is proven to increase profitability. Moreover, organizations with women holding at least 30% of leadership roles are 1.4 times more likely to have sustained, profitable growth.

International Women’s Day doesn’t just belong to women. It is up to men as well to be advocates for women in the workplace to create a collaborative and healthy environment that drives your company forward. 

"Wherever possible, work toward finding similarities with people," says Elaine Szu. "There are plenty of sociology experiments that point to shared experiences as the true source of bonding between individuals. So finding common ground with your colleagues, whether that’s through activities or projects will only strengthen your relationship beyond gender expectations and roles."

Interested in learning more about gender inclusivity in the workplace? Read about how employers can appeal to women after a career break.