1-8161135b438491d21d858963c3912a81.jpgTuesday, March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. Although popularized in 1977, the event traces its origins back to the early 1900s. And startling as it seems in contemporary society, the pressing need to realize gender parity on a global scale remains an elusive goal. In the United States, the diversity reports issued by powerful tech companies illustrate the distances we have yet to travel before we reach a truly level playing field for every member of the nation’s workforce. There are, however, exemplary standouts such as Slack, a tech startup that pioneered an enterprise chat and social collaboration tool. Not only is the company enticing users at a breakneck pace, Slack is creating a flourishing culture of diversity that rivals most others in the same sector. It’s a model we’d be wise to follow.

The State of Gender Parity in the World

The World Economic Forum rates 142 countries on the basis of women’s equality, using a binary ranking system: 0 represents no equality while 1 signifies full equality. And even Iceland, the world’s most egalitarian culture in this respect, achieves only a score of 0.881. It’s close, yet it reveals the limitations that persist. More distressing is the United States, which dropped eight spots with a score of 0.740. Two years ago, America occupied the 20th position. Today, it’s fallen to 28.

Women make up more than half the talent pool. Beyond that, they’re responsible for over 80 percent of the buying decisions in this country. That’s an overwhelming amount of consumer power. And yet by failing to promote women as leaders in the workplace, businesses effectively stifle their own profit potential. The perspectives, ideas and expertise of women professionals are essential. One would tend to believe that people who command such influence would be treated as star players on any corporate team. Sadly, that’s not the case.

  • There’s a 26-percent gap in the labor force participation rate between men and women.
  • In developing regions, 75-percent of women’s employment is informal and unprotected.
  • The average global pay gap in gender is still close to 25 percent.
  • Women spend 2.5 times more than men on unpaid care and domestic work.

The Benefits of Gender Equality in Business

The Peterson Institute for International Economics conducted a study of 22,000 publicly traded companies across 91 countries. They discovered that nearly 60 percent had no female board members. Less than five percent operated under a female CEO. And that’s a problem — both in the sense of fair treatment and pure productivity. As Business Insider’s Rachel Gillett explains:

“According to the survey, the presence of women on corporate boards and in senior management positions is directly tied to company performance. Profitable firms that moved from no female leadership to 30% representation in upper management saw on average a 15% increase in their net revenue margin.”

Another study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University showed that diverse workplaces maximize performance and decision-making:

“New research finds that socially different group members do more than simply introduce new viewpoints or approaches. In the study, diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.”

One of the most interesting findings in the series of tests was that homogenous groups scored higher in confidence, related to the decisions they made during the thought experiments. Their self-assurance waned when an outsider was introduced — a person whose views, opinions and insights often differed from the majority. However, in those diverse groups, the levels of accuracy and performance surpassed the homogenous teams.

The Ongoing Challenges of Gender Equality

The Kellogg study, like many others, reinforces that some concepts of “cultural fit” remain self-fulfilling and misguided prophecies — where team members seek out others exactly like themselves. In the technology industry, which historically has been dominated by men, that interpretation of cultural fit can squelch real inclusion.

When Google released its diversity data in 2014, the results caused quite a stir. Only two percent of its employees were black, and three percent were Latino. The vast majority of the workforce was male. Like many companies confronted with similar numbers, Google fell back on the “pipeline excuse.” The gist is that the pipeline of qualified applicants does not represent society as a whole. Basically, organizations in this position rationalize their lopsided figures by saying that too few qualified diversity candidates are applying for positions.

The explanation fails to explain away noticeable gaps between highly skilled diversity applicants and the volume of those individuals who are actually hired. According to Department of Education data, close to 10 percent of graduates from the top 25 computer science programs belong to underrepresented diversity categories. Yet those same groups account for five percent of the talent populations at tech giants such as Google.

Slack shines as an interesting exception. Just as it’s changing the game in the way business teams communicate, it’s changing the diversity game in the tech industry.

Slack’s Inclusion Data Shows How to Pick Up the Slack in Diversity

This past September, newcomer Slack pulled internal data from its HR systems to “generate a current snapshot of our gender distribution.” The results were impressive:

“While 45% of all people managers at Slack are women, it’s noteworthy that fully 41% of all people working at Slack have a woman as their manager. This means that 41% of our people report to a woman who help set their priorities, measure their performance, mentor them in their work, and who make recommendations that will impact their compensation and career growth.”

A great deal of Slack’s success comes from the inclusive business culture it developed during the formation of its model:

“Everyone at Slack agrees that diversity and inclusion are important but not everyone at Slack agrees about why. Some people here believe diverse teams produce better business results. Others see the issue in terms of social justice and addressing inequality of opportunity. And some just don’t want to work at a place where the population is overwhelmingly homogeneous. All are valid and important reasons. At the end of the day, the ‘why’ isn’t important when we all clearly agree on the ‘what.’”

Creating a Diversity Rich Culture

So how can we emulate Slack’s results? One of the first things we can do is change our messaging, our employment brand and the way we communicate. Diversity should be promoted as a core company value — a mandate and a way of working together as a team. This transcends attempts to enforce hiring quotas based on diversity categories. Our work policies and philosophies must inherently foster inclusion to ensure that members of underrepresented groups thrive in our organizations. We can accomplish these same goals by following Slack’s lead.

  • Examine all decisions concerning recruitment, compensation, promotions, employee recognition and management structures to ensure that no single group carries a clear advantage over another.
  • Create a team of diversity champions, across all employment levels of the enterprise, to advise on fair and inclusive processes for retention, recognition, skills coaching, effective management techniques, bias prevention education, performance and compensation reviews, and more.
  • Set inclusiveness goals and hold managers accountable.
  • Develop and implement merit-based hiring strategies that emphasize ideal cultural fits — not friendship fits — that align to the organization’s overarching strategies and objectives. These strategies focus on filling key positions with the best people across diversity groups, eliminating perceptions that people are hired to fill quotas.
  • Make sure that executive sponsors involve themselves as inclusion advocates, reinforcing diversity commitments, measuring progress toward goals and establishing formal review processes for identifying challenges.
  • Review employment data from internal HR systems. People analytics enable us to identify talent trends, traits, skills, values and goals to optimize the recruiting process. They can also uncover areas with the poorest track records in diverse hiring and engagement.

Innovation Owes a Debt to Women

As NASA proved yesterday in its tribute, women have been equal pioneers in the history of technological and scientific achievements. Without the genius of Katherine Johnson, the moon landing may never have occurred. Johnson, an African-American woman, calculated the trajectories for the missions that sent the first Americans into space and to the moon. She was so accurate that when NASA began using computers, they called her to verify the numbers. Since Johnson’s time at the agency, 58 women have flown into space. NASA’s not alone. Also consider other innovations we wouldn’t have today without women.

  • The COBOL computer language conceived by Dr. Grace Murray Hopper.
  • The uncrackable radio codes invented by Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr.
  • The Blissymbol printer created by a 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman, which enabled non-speaking people to communicate.
  • Kevlar body armor, brought to us by Stephanie Kwolek.
  • Marie Curie’s groundbreaking research on radioactivity.

There is, quite frankly, no difference in skills, intelligence, dedication, performance and abilities across the sexes. The only differences are the inequalities in workplace pay and treatment. Like Slack and other progressive organizations, we have the opportunity to eradicate these disparities and embrace the contributions of women who will define success in this century and the next.

Photo courtesy of NASA