Join the Conversation:  Where Are Diversity Initiatives Headed (or Should Be Headed)?

The release of McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2017 report marks my one year anniversary blogging on Ms. JD.  When I started writing about gender disparities a year ago, McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2016 report informed, shaped, and inspired my first articles.  Since then, I’ve cited it many times and held it close by.  It may be the only document on my desk that I’ve not recycled since last October. 

Now, a year later, it feels as if it’s time to switch out the year-old bible on my desk with the new report.  What’s changed?  What progress have we made?  Below I outline four changes between last year’s report and this year’s – not just for my own amusement and curiosity, but because these changes signal where diversity initiatives are headed, or at least should be headed. 

1.  More Gung-ho

We haven’t made progress, but we’ve gotten angrier.  Angry in a good way.  More riled up.  More determined to see and make change.  Tired of the lack of change year after year. 

Last year’s report opens with an observation:  “women fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step.”  But there was no clear call to action. 

In contrast, this year’s report starts with a call to action:  “Getting to gender equality starts with realizing how far we have to go.”  This year’s opening page calls out that progress is “stalling,” that “many employees think women are well represented in leadership when they see only a few,” that employees have gotten “comfortable” with the status quo, and that “men are less committed to the issue” – criticism you won’t find in last year’s report.  This year’s report makes clear that if we don’t each and every one of us do more to create change, we aren’t going anywhere. 

2. More Attention to Women of Color

This year’s report devotes an opening paragraph and three pages to detailing additional obstacles and disparities faced by women of color.  The opening paragraph highlights: 

Many companies overlook the realities of women of color, who face the greatest obstacles and receive the least support.  When companies take a one-size-fits-all approach to advancing women, women of color end up underserved and left behind.  This year we take a deeper look at women of color to better understand the distinct challenges they face, shaped by the intersection of gender and race. 

In contrast, last year’s report devotes just one page, describing additional opportunity gaps between women of color and white women.  This year’s report focuses on not only opportunity gaps but also gaps in managerial support between women of color and white women.  Women of color receive less support from managers in many ways, such as managers defending them, helping them navigate politics, advocating for them for an opportunity, and giving them stretch assignments and advice that advances them. 

Last year’s report recognizes a problem but proposes no concrete ways to address it:  “Clearly there’s important work to be done, and this starts with greater awareness of the problem and a steadfast commitment to addressing it.”  This year’s report goes a step farther and outlines concrete steps to improving women of color’s experience in the workplace, such as unconscious bias training, inclusivity training, requiring diverse hiring, and tracking progress including representation, hiring, and promotions. 

3.  Greater Call to Men and Managers to Take Action

This year’s report explicitly calls out men as part of the problem as well as the key to progress.  The opening page laments:

Many men don’t fully grasp the state of women in the workplace, and some worry that gender diversity efforts disadvantage them.  As a result, men are less committed to the issue, and we can't get to equality without them.

Last year’s report does not mention men in its opening page.  The report does not argue that men need to become more invested in order to achieve gender equality.  Nor does it argue that managers must become more invested.  In contrast, this year’s report devotes almost six pages to arguing that men and managers must become more invested in gender equality and prioritize it. 

This year’s report reveals that half of men who took the survey believe that women are “well represented in leadership” even where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman.  More than 60 percent of men say that their company is already “doing what it takes to improve gender diversity.”  Less than 50% of surveyed men report that gender diversity is a top personal priority to them.  Sadly, young men ages 22 to 29 are the least committed to gender diversity, among young women, older women, and older men.  Some 15 percent of men feel that gender diversity efforts “make it harder for them to advance.” 

This year’s report calls for men to make workplace gender equality a priority and for managers to help drive that prioritization.  The report proposes that managers (a) communicate and show a high priority on gender equality and (b) offer concrete and actionable guidance on how to improve gender equality.  Examples of concrete action include tracking and sharing key metrics with employees, ensuring a diversity of voices in decision-making, initiating sponsorship programs that commit individual leaders to advocate for and create opportunities for women, raising awareness of the scale of the problem, providing men a realistic understanding of workplace gender dynamics, and offering all-employee training on counteracting unconscious bias.  The report highlights that it is critical that these trainings target not just women and other underrepresented employees but also and especially men. 

When men make diversity a personal priority, they are more likely to support their fellow women colleagues, promote them, defend them, give them important opportunities, and help create a more diverse and equal workplace.    

4. Call to Set Targets on Hiring and Promotions

Both reports urge companies to focus on accountability and results, including tracking gender representation, external hiring, and promotions; setting targets for representation, external hiring, and promotions; and transparency of metrics and results.  Last year’s report observes that “although most companies track metrics on women’s representation, targets are far less common” and points out that “targets matter.”  This year’s report takes it a step farther and expressly asks companies to set targets:  companies “should track outcomes and set gender targets [for hiring and promotions] so they have clear goals and can gauge their progress.  It only follows that a more comprehensive approach will lead to better outcomes.” 

My call to action is minimal compared to McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s, but it is an important corollary and first step to addressing a key problem identified in the 2017 report.  All companies that participated in the study and managers who are reading this study should be distributing this report to all employees, not just to women and other diverse employees. 

What easier first step is there to remedy the fact that “men think women are doing better than they really are”?  What simpler action could we take to respond to the report’s call to “raise awareness of the scale of the problem”?  If we aren't distributing this report to all employees, what exactly are we doing to raise awareness about gender disparities and express our commitment to diversity in the workplace?  

Further, the report should be distributed by a manager or someone in a leadership position - because "managers drive employee commitment" and "when managers show a high commitment to gender diversity, employees are more committed themselves - and women are less likely to think that their gender will play a role in missing out on an opportunity" and in turn more likely to stay and aspire to senior leadership.  

If we are truly committed to gender equality and diversity in the workplace, we need to break through traditional barriers of targeting diversity-related initiatives at only diverse employees.  Men and managers need to start jumping in, not just to join the dialogue but also to initiate the dialogue.    

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