During International Women's Month, we have the chance to pause and celebrate the trailblazers of women’s rights and recognize how far women have come over the past 100 years. As much as I appreciated the chance to reflect on March 8 -- International Women's Day -- let’s be honest, one day each year just isn’t enough. Just like we can’t only think about climate change on Earth Day.
Embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace should be happening year-round. We need to take the time to celebrate our collective successes, yet we must also take action and identify areas where organizations and communities can improve upon inclusion and diversity.
I've been lucky enough to spend more than three decades in the software industry. Much has improved since I first entered the workforce. Women now make up 53% of initial hires. However, by the time women reach manager level, the proportion of women drops to 37%, then to 26% at the vice president level and to a mere 14% of executive committee roles.
Creating a supportive and inclusive culture is becoming a hot topic in today’s workplaces, which is great to see. I recently sat around the table with community leaders, CEOs and senior business executives in Atlanta to share lessons learned and best practices as they relate to diversity and inclusion. It isn’t about meeting a “quota” as it relates to diversity and inclusion. It goes beyond that and is about providing mentorship, sponsorship and opportunities for all. Some takeaways:
1. Create a Culture of Mentorship Within Your Organization. Mentors catalyze both professional and personal development. A great mentor can help give voices to junior employees when it comes to advocating for promotions, participating in big projects and making new connections.
Women (and men) advance faster, perform better, and choose to stay with their companies longer when they have effective mentors. Not to mention, 85 percent of women report that they need support navigating and advancing in the workplace, but are less likely to receive it when compared to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, as of now, only about half of male managers are comfortable with mentoring women.
To help mitigate gender bias, formalize a mentorship program. Suggest that managers take on a mentee and record progress and development throughout the year. Establish mentorships as a crucial part of your organization by setting aside designated spaces and times during the workday for 1:1 meetings. Then, watch the mentorship program take off. It’s also important to set up regular check-ins where both mentors and mentees can talk through overall program feedback, making sure the program improves over time.
2. Create Opportunities for Women to Find a Sponsor. Most decisions that impact our careers are made when we aren’t even in the room. Having an advocate with the power to help you advance your career is key. Leaders must create a culture where women, and frankly anyone looking to rise through the ranks, can find sponsors: These are leaders in executive roles who truly care about an employee’s development, and who will push them to excel, and speak up for them behind closed doors. People connect through commonalities and mutual interests. Host company-sponsored events to help foster meaningful connections, and ultimately, pair employees with an advocate.
For example, employee resource groups - voluntary, employee-led groups that bring people together based on shared interests, backgrounds or demographic factors such as gender, race or ethnicity - can be forums for people to meet sponsors. To reinforce women’s mentorship and support networks, establish a women’s resource group that provides a place for women to learn from their peers, develop both leadership and networking skills and gain greater visibility and access to female senior executives.
Beyond formal resource groups that meet on a regular basis, networking events can offer additional informal opportunities to strengthen the bond between women colleagues. There is no set script for networking events, they can range from formal workshops to casual happy hours to events outside of the office. What’s more, they often require less facilitation than resource groups, with huge payoff. In a study from the Harvard Business Review, attendees of a single women-focused conference not only reported higher chances of promotions or raises, they also had overwhelming responses about feeling optimistic about the future and more connected to other women.
Women at all levels benefit from leadership networks and recurring relationship-building opportunities. Senior team members can meet the next generation of leaders, and entry-level women can find role models. Informal, large networking events can also spark casual conversations and forge friendships.
3. Keep the Dialogue Open. As noted earlier, it’s important to ensure that the conversation around women’s advancement in the workplace does not begin and end with International Women’s Day. To keep women’s empowerment in the workplace top of mind, companies can organize regular events or delegate hours during the month to address day-to-day growth opportunities and challenges. To implement any ideas coming out of these discussions, appoint liaisons from the group to manage any next steps.
The way this dialogue takes place can vary depending upon company culture. Companies can host casual roundtable lunches where small groups of women come to talk about their experiences or they can host larger formal events with panel discussions and breakout sessions about how to enact progress. Regular check-ins between leaders and women on their teams can be an effective way to keep the women in your office feeling empowered throughout the year.
Of course, creating a diverse and inclusive workplace goes beyond gender. There needs to be significant change to not only create a level playing field, but to also create a culture where all colleagues feel included and heard. Studies have proven that the more diverse and inclusive an organization or decision-making body, the richer the discussion, debate and the decisions that are made. As business leaders, we must play an active role in creating a more inclusive culture and in growing and championing leaders from within.
Nancy Harris is executive vice president and managing director of Sage North America.