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4 Easy Fixes to Avoid Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Suits

Have you noticed there’s been a lot of conversation about gender equality lately? And, then there’s the firestorm around sexual harassment. The former has a significant financial impact and so does the latter. It’s been demonstrated by McKinsey, EY, Catalyst and the UN (just to name a few reputable organizations) that the financial returns are significant higher when women are in executive leadership roles, on Boards and/or executive committees. They are also organizational more successful which translates into higher retention and employee engagement.

Sexual harassment cases are costing companies millions of dollars to settle (e.g., Fox News paid Megyn Kelly $20 million). CEOs are being toppled due to inappropriate comments (e.g., Saachi and Saachi's Chairman). Women are beginning (albeit slowly) to take action when faced with sexual harassment. Regardless for the motivation (financial, ethical or risk aversion), it appears that the 40-year old conversation regarding gender equality may be changing. Or is it? We recently conducted a survey to gather information from professional women and their experience in the workplace. One of the questions we asked was: “I have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace”. Sixty percent of respondents noted they had experienced some type of discrimination through limited opportunities, disrespect, or inappropriate comments. The following is a sampling of their comments: I feel that I am spoken to condescendingly and treated more harshly than my male peers by my male boss. I don't feel respected or treated fairly. When pregnant with my first baby, I was working with a male VP. Out of frustration when I was making some changes to his presentation, he said in a full room of people, "Is it legal to kill a pregnant person?" Not promoted or given opportunity because upper management didn't want to give me responsibility since I was of "child bearing age" and could leave the company. As a grad assistant, my male classmates/co-workers made comments that I was "too blonde" to be a statistics major or that I should be an English major, though I helped them understand the concepts being taught by our professors. When I was a supervisor, I had another supervisor go around and tell my employees to ignore me because I "was probably PMSing". I have had several men assume I obtained my job by "sleeping with someone" or just for being a woman. I always have to perform at 150% to be considered "as good" as male coworkers. Shocking to say the least! These attitudes are as pervasive with the younger men as they are with the “old timers”. The purpose of this blog is a call to action for organizations to:

-have the courage to objectively measure their current environment for supporting gender diversity;

- make the necessary changes in the workplace to attract and retain talented women; and

- address potential issues before they explode into problems that drain time and financial resources. We believe that with several easy modifications, companies can begin to move the needle toward greater gender equality. Here are four actions companies can take to create a positive work environment that supports gender diversity and that has a significant return on the investment. Even if your company does an outstanding job in creating an inclusive environment, these actions are valuable for ensuring sustained success. 1. Assess the current work environment. Does your company have objective, quantifiable data that can stand up in court if faced with a gender discrimination lawsuit? Victoria Budson, the founding Executive Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, once said that when there’s data, there’s a solution. While many companies say they have programs, few actually have data that objectively evaluates their effectiveness and/or identifies potential areas of risk. We recommend conducting an annual evaluation that includes executive management, senior leadership, middle managers, and the staff level women. CareerAgility developed the L.E.A.P. Scorecard to provide organizations with a tool for capturing data that can be used to create effective solutions that produce measurable results. 2. Ensure organizational alignment behind gender equality initiatives. Is everyone within the organization regardless of role, engaged in creating an environment that advances gender equality or are they giving lip service to the effort? It’s great to have a grassroots movement. However, it’s critical that everyone from the executives to the front line folks be part of the process in closing existing gaps. One of the key findings from the research conducted by Forbes places the onus for the success of diversity efforts on the shoulders of senior leaders. Again, an organizational assessment can identify where there’s a breakdown in alignment, disparities in perception, and processes and procedures that impede success. 3. Create a safe environment for addressing gender discrimination issues. Is there a sincere effort throughout the organization to eliminate inappropriate behavior or comments? Odds are that the women who shared the above comments did nothing in reaction to them. Fear is the primary reason women fail to speak up. They fear the repercussions from their managers or co-workers; they are concerned about losing their jobs if they complain. One approach is to build accountability for eliminating gender bias through the performance management system. Evaluate and celebrate individual efforts that further gender equality within teams, departments, or divisions. Rather than seeing “complaints” as criticism, consider them an opportunity for increasing awareness. Unconscious gender bias is everyone’s issue. The only way it can be eliminated is to shed light on it. 4. Promote the value of gender diversity. How much does your organization understand the importance of diversity for increasing its success? There is no doubt a good number of companies do acknowledge the importance of diversity. However, there are still many more that ignore this issue. In addition to being the right thing to do, a diverse workforce makes good business sense. Research continues to demonstrate the relationship between diversity and innovation, a necessity for maintaining a competitive advantage in a global economy. Forbes Insights noted that: “A diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking”. In Women Matter, an annual study conducted by McKinsey & Company continues to find that companies with greater female representation on their executive committees outperform both operationally and financially than those that have little or no female representation. A final thought A common pitfall is the notion that other people think and perceive the world like us. This is erroneous in general and causes significant breakdown when it comes to the interaction between women and men. It really does take two to tango for a sustained change. Joanne Lipman in her article Women at Work: A Guide for Men provide tips for men regarding women’s behavior that confounds and frustrates them. Tony Porter, in his TEDtalk provides valuable insight to societal pressures men face while making a powerful case for them to break free from “The Man Box”. These are excellent resources for promoting greater understand between genders. What is your organization doing to promote gender diversity? Share your thoughts so others can benefit from them.

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