5 Moves to Rock this International Women's Day!

It's that time of the year… you see invites for events, luncheon, roundtable to celebrate International Women’s Day. 

Increasing women participation in the workplace is an important issue. It's not only a social issue, it's also a business issue. Despite modest improvements in recent years, women are still underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline, with disparity greatest in senior leadership. As now, just 26 women -- ~5% -- are CEOs of S&P 500 companies. Half of the world's potential workforce are not fully tapped, or as Warren Buffet put it “playing with one hand tied behind its back.” 

Increasing women participation in the workplace is an important issue.  It’s not only a social issue, it’s also a business issue. 

This post, is me reaching out to leaders of organizations with "Diversity & Inclusion (D&I)" on top of your business and leadership agenda. You especially see the huge upside in engaging women talents. You are investing in programs & initiatives, putting a task-force in-charge, sponsoring networking & mentoring groups, but progress has been slow or fail to sustain. Some well-intentioned plans, actually make the workforce feel more divisive than inclusive. Why? What is happening? 


To have more women participating and thriving in your organizations, the focus must be part of your everyday business fabric, like managing sales leads, funnel pulse through the daily business activities.  And there are 5 practical ACTIONS you could take now, that WILL move the needle!

1.       Communicate with clarity 

If you do a random survey of your employees, what would they say is your company's D&I strategy? Would you be surprised if the answers were "it's about women, more women. Millennials too." Diversity is more than just gender. And "D&I" means different things to different people. However, often, managers say "D&I" when they really mean "women's representation" in conversations about increasing women's talents!  D&I becomes this vague label, that is narrowed as women's issue, that loses the connection to the why and the business case, and to the front line employees, D&I = women is special and wanted. 

Communicate with clarity of intent - why having a diverse and inclusive workforce is good for our community AND business. Use data to provide context on the untapped, available women talents. Discuss the benefits of including more women in male dominated teams: expanding the richness of skills, experience, thinking, beliefs that reflect the world we serve. So we see the big picture and the immediate focus area.

2.       Be guided by the metric, not "managing" 

Most companies track % of their women's population.  Many large multi-nationals, include growth in women's representation in their leaders' performance appraisal.  It's important to know our numbers.  So we know where we stand today, where we want to go, measure and track if we are progressing in the right direction.  By publishing the numbers regularly, it creates awareness among our employees, promotes transparency and encourages participation in the initiative.

The problem is when the growth aspiration is being cascaded from the top leader throughout the organization to the front-line managers, it becomes another quota item. The managers are being given a "quota" of women to hire within a specific timeframe. If the middle management do not take the care and effort, to establish guiding principles, provide support to increase women's pipeline, meeting the metric takes precedence. I have heard talented women wondered if they were hired to meet the "quota". Unfortunately some of their colleagues thought so too! 

Shift the focus from managing the lagging indicator (number of women on the team) to understanding the leading indicators (for eg. pipeline) and direct the efforts accordingly.

3.       Acknowledge that we are all bias

We are all bias.  We have different upbringing and experiences that shape each of our own worldviews, preferences and assumptions.  It's normal and it's ok.  It just means we must install structure to help us test our assumptions, surface any conscious or unconscious biases, provide a safe and open space to discuss and debate.  In the example above about hiring,  guiding principles could include:

  • Success criteria to be outlined upfront (ie. not just stating what the person will do. but the desired impact, the top 3 attributes critical to success etc?) 
  • At least xx% women's pipeline
  • At least x women in the interview panel
  • And make the above required, not optional.  The most justification we hear is that there is simply no women pipeline and we urgently need to fill the position or business would be impacted. So we hire another man, or the only woman candidate available that is not the best fit.    

When we are firm on the guiding principles, we'll uncover the real issues in the system. It could be the hiring pool was too narrow, anemic pipelining effort, job description needs to be updated with more inclusive language. It also forces us to crystalize the talent profile we need for the business of tomorrow, rather than recycling an old JD. 

4.       Understand that we don’t always understand what’s going on in others life

Don't assume that because she's just gotten married, or is a new mom, she wouldn't want a job that requires travels or an exciting international gig. May be her spouse would be willing to relocate with her or could work from anywhere. We must be vigilant when we fall into auto-pilot, projecting our assumptions and lens on others, especially when comes to people decisions.

Always, be expanding our reservoir of perspectives. Training to surface unconscious biases is a good place to start. Mixing up people with different backgrounds for reverse or peer mentoring is a great way to get people out of their comfort zone. Reflect and journal on situations at work that made you want to have a hard eye-roll. What really bothered you? What were your own beliefs, assumptions, expectations that stirred up such a strong response in you? Yes, this is "heart" work!

5.       Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Changing employee demographic is not a program that you launch and review the results at quarter end. Interrupting our mind's auto pilot, established point of views, work habits, and embracing evolving workplace dynamics requires daily, consistent, persistent effort. We must get into the habit of inviting in different perspectives, listen with our ears/eyes/heart open, intentionally making room for the new, unfamiliar, different. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

We are barely touching the tip of the iceberg on this topic. But if your women's initiative is not making forward progress, check in on the above 5 areas .  They are simple to understand, but not easy to do.  It requires the leaders to have courage, humility & discipline, to lead by example, on a daily basis.  I have been fortunate to work with outstanding leaders that took the effort to give me a platform. I'm forever grateful. It's my hope that by shining the light on where progress is stuck, more people will step up to open the door.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”



Jacinta Quah