Appealing to Women
As new online options are making it easier for job seekers to evaluate whether a prospective company really has earned its reputation as a female-friendly environment, experts say HR must commit to building a culture of inclusion at all levels of the organization.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
The world celebrated International Women's Day on March 8 with parades, speeches and even a commemorative "Google Doodle" on Google's homepage. The United Nations marked the occasion by calling on the world to achieve gender parity by 2030.
Judging by the latest evidence, however, plenty more work needs to be done before that goal is reached. Mercer's latest When Women Thrive report finds that only 35 percent of organizations report having a robust pay-equity-analysis structure in place to address potential biases in pay. Fewer than 10 percent offer retirement and financial education focused on women, the report finds, despite the fact that studies repeatedly show women are generally less prepared for retirement than men.
Many companies actively promote policies designed to make it easier for women and working mothers to achieve fulfilling careers; however, women have long complained that the reality inside many of these organizations often doesn't match the rhetoric, with relatively few women in leadership positions and policies that are "flexible" in name only.
However, a small number of crowdsourcing websites aimed specifically at women and designed to increase transparency on these matters have emerged recently, including Fairygodboss and InHerSight. Both sites aim to make it easier for job seekers to evaluate whether a prospective company really does have a women-friendly environment, much the way review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor allow diners and tourists to get a better sense of where to spend their dollars.
InHerSight and Fairygodboss let visitors anonymously rate their employers on factors such as flexible-work hours, family leave policies and female representation in the leadership ranks, and submit detailed reviews of their companies. Both sites already feature thousands of reviews; on Fairygodboss, users have posted 19,000 reviews on more than 7,000 employers so far, says co-founder Romy Newman.
"We've been overwhelmed by the quality of responses we've gotten -- we were concerned that it would be mostly 'sour grapes,' but we've had really thoughtful, balanced reviews," says Newman.
Newman says she and her business partner, Georgene Huang, were inspired to start the site after Huang was laid off from Dow Jones while two months' pregnant and discovered that, despite the growing number of company review sites, there was little that was geared specifically toward issues such as work/life balance and opportunities for women.
In analyzing the reviews posted on Fairygodboss, Newman and Huang found workplaces that feature long and inflexible hours scored very low, while those that promote work/life balance and had management teams that weren't composed mostly of men rated highly.
A common theme among the reviews is that "companies are trying," says Newman. "When women work for companies where it's clearly important to management to improve equality, they really appreciate it -- they rate the company more highly," she says.
Corporate reputation matters a lot to women: According to a survey by Corporate Responsibility magazine, out of 1,000 employed and unemployed Americans surveyed, 86 percent of American females said they would not join a company with a bad reputation, compared to only 67 percent of American males.
However, even a good reputation is often not enough to compensate for a gender imbalance in the leadership ranks.
"You can't be what you can't see," says Tamar Elkeles, chief people officer at Quixey, a mobile-technology company based in Mountain View, Calif.
. "A key element of attracting and retaining women in the workplace is having female executive role models in leadership positions."
Companies should have a responsibility to build a pipeline of female leaders and commit to eliminating gender stereotypes in the workplace, she says. They should capitalize on opportunities to share stories of women on their leadership teams via industry summits and roundtable discussions, she says.
Companies need to honestly assess themselves to determine whether they're truly "women-friendly," says Marcia Mueller, an executive coach and practice leader for talent development at New York-based IMPACT Group. "What percentage of your applicant pool are women? What percentage of them is converted to hires? And what percentage of your workforce is women?" she asks.
At San Francisco-based technology firm DoubleDutch, women hold an impressive 40 percent of the C-suite positions. The company makes itself female-friendly not only by offering generous leave policies -- new mothers get 12 weeks of paid leave and new fathers get four weeks -- but by setting a tone that family time is taken seriously there, says Chief Customer Officer Annie Tsai.
"We want our people to know that we're not going to think any less of you if, for example, you want to adjust your schedule so you can accompany your child on a field trip," says Tsai, who has a young son.
DoubleDutch also focuses on holding employee get-togethers that differ from those of other Silicon Valley companies in that attendees are encouraged to bring their children along, says Tsai.
"Our last one was at our corporate headquarters -- we had karaoke, human-size Jenga, people playing games," she says. "Everyone brought their kids -- I brought my 3-year old and we had a lot of fun."
This marks Tsai's sixth year working in a start-up-style company and she says that, while her overall number of work hours has marginally decreased, her personal productivity has significantly increased.
"I've had to be more effective at prioritizing the demands of the company and it's actually made me a better leader and given my team a stronger opportunity to stand up and take a more strategic role in the organization," she says. "I leave the office before 5 o'clock every day so I can be home for dinner and put my son to bed, and after that, I hop back online to do more work. We will always take family life seriously here."
Tsai was the executive sponsor for a resource group to foster stronger relationships between senior female leaders and other women in the company.
"It's important to point out that working parents do not want to be singled out and do not want to be given special benefits because they're parents; they want to be appreciated for the talent they have but don't want to be negatively impacted just because they have kids," says Tsai.
MEC, a London-based media agency with offices in the United States, was recently recognized by Advertising Age as one of the 50 Best Places to Work in Marketing and Media. The company seeks to appeal to working parents, including women, by being flexible at its various global locations, says Global Chief Talent Officer Marie-Claire Barker.
"We're not a clock-watching organization -- we measure people on their output and ideas," says Barker.
At MEC's London office, the firm piloted its "Smarter Working Initiative," which lets employees telecommute from home or their favorite coffee shop, while its Australia office addressed the concerns of some employees who were concerned that teleworkers weren't as productive or held to the same standards by closing the office and requiring everyone to work from home for a day.
"Eighty percent of the participants [in the Smarter Working initiative] said it actually made them more productive and creative," says Barker.
When it comes to making companies more attractive to women, HR must help translate the intentions of the leadership ranks into the behavior, processes and mind-sets of managers, says Newman.
"You need to be enforcing and reinforcing these subtle behaviors," she says.
"If you're tasked with delivering 20-percent growth in your division, you're probably not focused on making sure everyone gets out the door at 6 p.m.," she says. "If you're feeling the pressure of delivering on numbers, this stuff tends to fall by the wayside, so maybe it needs to be written into the incentives and rewards.
"I think HR has to be aggressive about inserting itself into the conversation with CEOs, so if cultural and behavioral metrics are going to be part of the performance reviews, then HR needs to pre-emptively get into the conversation and say, 'Here are the changes I want to make that are going to benefit the business, and not just women.' "
She cites software firm SAS, which mandates that people do not work longer than 35 hours a week. "That sort of clarity is crucial, it doesn't allow managers to say, 'Yeah, we want you to have work/life balance but, wink wink, we need you to work this Saturday.' "
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