What Does it Take to Be a Great Place for Women to Work?

By Jessica Gendron, President

There is an abundance of available research around the bias and discrimination that women face in the workplace.  That research gives us great insight in to what has limited the advancement of women and how it’s stalling qualified women in their careers. For many of us, the question of “how to fix it” lingers.  We scoured the available research to build a formula that we believe “gets us started” on the path to creating better, more inclusive and respectful workplaces for women.

Much of what lies in this blog is probably stuff your organization is already doing in some capacity, yet it’s rarely linked together intentionally and strategically – focused on making your organization a great place for women to work.  These things are bound together with a common goal of transforming the culture and systems of an organization to benefit men and women in the same way.  In reality, much of organizational cultures and systems benefits men and women differently.

Additionally, organizations have create metrics or measurements to track the transformation.  It’s not enough to say you’re making the transformation, but you have to have the data that says you’ve moved the needle.  [This is the only shameless plug in the blog] We have that tool already created for organizations to track how the experiences of men and women differ in an organization – an can quantifiably track the progress your organization is making toward gender equality (to learn more contact Jessica).  Regardless, you must be able to quantifiably show that the culture and systems are changing/have changed to benefit men and women equally.

Read on for our insight on how to become a great place for women to work:

Formula Pie Graph

CLE’s Formula to become a great place for women to work.

Becoming a great place for women to work requires an organization to look at and address culture and systems in six critical areas:

                  1. Executive Engagement & Strategy
                  2. Human Systems
                  3. Data & Metrics
                  4. Policies & Benefits
                  5. Allies & Bias Training
                  6. Coaching, Training, & Mentoring



1. Executive Engagement & Strategy

There’s no lack of priorities for corporate boards and executive teams.  In fact, most of them find themselves struggling to prioritize the priorities.  No one would argue the value of investing in gender equality initiatives, but unfortunately if often falls off the priorities list when push comes to shove.  The strategy then becomes to push it down to a women’s engagement group or Human Resources to spearhead leaving the results lackluster, by no fault of theres.  Gender equality and diversity initiatives have to have executive member approval AND engagement, if not the likely success diminishes considerably.  The data shows that when executives, particularly male executives, are engaged and bought in to gender equality initiatives that those initiatives see progress 96% of the time.  If you don’t have engagement from the male executives, you must start there.

Go Bolder:  Gender diversity initiatives have to have an internal champion.  Most often, that champion is the female on the executive team, HR, or a group of women leaders.  To be perfectly honest, if you want to truly dismantle oppressive culture and systems within the organization, the CEO has to be the champion.  It has to be their priority; not something they “give their blessing” to, but something they care about, champion, and place personal priority on.  If not, you won’t get to gender equality anytime in the next 20 years.

2. Human Systems

Once you have executive engagement, we can tackle the one of the biggest culprit of gender bias in the workplace: Human Systems.  By Human Systems I mean recruiting, interviewing, hiring decisions, performance evaluations, promotions, succession planning, and compensation.  Notice I said “human systems” and not “Human Resources”; That’s because the human systems component of the organization involves lots of people, lots of cultural norms, and lots of systems – not just the HR Team.  Addressing the human systems requires us to systemize and quantify each process to limit the amount of personal opinion and bias that can creep in.

That means clearer evaluation criteria, scoring matrix, standardized questions for interviews and evaluations, clear compensation guidelines for salary, bonus, and raises, as well as training for the people who will use these human systems.

I know that many organizations are making great strides toward these goals; I commend you for that effort!  I then ask you to consider your bias in creating these systems.  How can you ensure that you didn’t unintentionally and unknowingly create something that was biased?  Did you run these systems by a diverse set of leaders?  Did you align these processes to the culture the leadership team is trying to build and the stated values of the organization?  Have you gathered feedback from a diverse pool of employees about their experience within these systems?  If not, you now have next steps to continue improving upon what you’ve already built.

Go Bolder:  Achieving gender equality and making your organization a great place for women to work means that your organizations have to achieve gender balance in your employee demographics.  I have lots of organizations that tout their close to equal ratios, however, when you dig deeper into the data, you will see that most of those women are in lower levels and support roles, not in leadership.  We have to look at gender balance across every level of an organization, not just organizationally as a whole.  The common rebuttal I hear to that is, “there just weren’t enough qualified women in the pool to hire in that leadership position.”  To that I say, try harder.  In reality, a study showed that when there was only one woman in the final candidate pool (of 4), the likelihood that she would be hired was 0%.  That percentage goes up to 50% chance of being hired when there are two women and 67% chance of being hired when there are three women.  We have to try harder to put more women into the pool.

Go Bolder(er):  Getting more women in the pool requires us to take a closer look at what skills, abilities, and experience we actually want from a candidate to make it into the finalist pool.  Studies show that women are more commonly evaluated for jobs based on what they have already achieved, yet men are evaluated for their potential to do the job.  We have to ask ourselves – more honestly – is it the prior experience more important here or are there a set of skills or abilities that are of greater value?  Then we must apply those standards, criteria, and evaluations systematically the same across all candidates.  That may require us to anonymize the application process (go super bolder(er))- and there’s data to support it; a recent study showed that when gender indicators where removed, women were selected at a higher rate than male applicants.

3. Data & Metrics

Lots of organizations are tracking employee engagement and/or satisfaction, but we don’t believe they’re tracking all the right data.  Data and metrics isn’t just about collecting survey or demographic data, it’s also about tracking the right employee data.  Are you tracking your attrition rates based on gender (and race/ethnicity)?  Are you tracking how long a man stays in a role before he’s promoted versus a woman?  Are you tracking how many female vs. male candidates you have for each new hire?  Are you tracking if people leave the company for a career enhancement or a lateral move?  Are you then comparing that data based on gender?

Let me tell you why this type of data matters.  It creates a more complete story about your workforce and the female experience.  If you have 90% female candidates for a customer service roles and 90% male candidates for engineer roles, it’s no wonder you have gender imbalance in those spots.  That data gives you a better idea of how you need to adapt your recruiting processes, change job descriptions, or modify your process to diversify you pool.  Most HR and Talent Aquisition employees anecdotally know this data, however we’re not tracking it in a meaningful way that allows us to see what makes an impact on gender balance and what doesn’t.

Go Bolder: If you have significantly more women than men leaving for lateral moves then career enhancements, that also gives us a data point to explore.  If that data point is coupled with longer “time to advance” for women and lower amounts of women in leadership – then we begin to see a story unfold about our culture for women.  That might mean that you have women leaving because they’re frustrated watching male colleagues get promoted over them, and as a result leave for better opportunities instead of you retaining the talent.  Then again, it may mean nothing, nonetheless it’s data that allows you to dig deeper into potential blind spots you might have systemically or culturally as an organization.

Data and metrics is about putting the right systems in place so you can track potential hotspots within your culture.  The problem we have right now is that we’re not tracking the right data to do that in an intelligent way.

4. Policies & Benefits

Policy and benefits are the go-to, quick-fix for organizations trying to improve their culture for women.  These things matter are critical to attracting and retaining top female talent.  Paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, work-from-home options, and paid sick leave are critical benefits for most female employees; In fact, some research shows that women value those benefits more than higher financial compensation [personally I’d argue we deserve both good benefits and equal compensation, but that’s another blog for another day].  The reality is that the burden of being the primary caregiver (children, family, aging parents) in most families still disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women. The need for women to have the flexibility to successfully navigate both roles is a requirement to recruiting and retaining top female talent at every level in an organization.

Additionally, we have to look at how the organization handles sexual harassment and discrimination claims, how those claims are adjudicated, and if individuals are require to sign non-disclosure agreements after the process is complete.  Those policies tell women a story about if your organization is a culture that supports, empowers, and believes women – or if its ones that effectively silences them from speaking out when problematic behavior happens in the workplace.

Policies and benefits have to be aligned to the culture the organization is trying to demonstrate and must be critically considered as an organization is becoming a great place for women to work.

Go Bolder:. Lots of employers tout flexible environments and work-from-home options, yet women are still met with resistance or guilt from managers and leaders within the organization when they employ them.  Worse yet, women are afraid to use these benefits because they don’t see leaders using the benefits – there is no role-modeling of the behavior.  It’s not enough to just support these benefits, they have to be explicitly written into your employee handbooks and employees need to be free to use them appropriately without backlash from managers or colleagues.  Additionally, executive leaders need to use these benefits at equal rates as the average employee to role-model good behavior but also demonstrate a commitment to a culture that supports caregivers, as well.

Go Bolder(er): Paid. maternity. leave.  That’s all.

5. Allies & Bias Training

Studies are starting show how bad harassment programs are at creating any sort of real change and that bias training that is a flashpoint in an employee experience doesn’t work either.  The truth is that achieving true outcomes in ally and bias training requires intentional and consistent effort within every layer of the organization – from the executive down to receptionist.

There’s no value in a workplace where women are don’t have support from their male peers or leaders and the men around them are walking on eggshells, afraid to say the wrong thing or cross a line they can’t see.  We have to teach men how to be allies for women, while also teaching women how to be their ally in learning how.  Additionally, organizations need extensive, intentional, consistent bias training that helps individuals understand their own bias, how it shows up at work, and how to work to overcome it.  Then, organizations must work to provide space for employees to connect on things they have in common, not their differences.

Bias training must also be applied to anyone engaging in the human systems of the organization, regularly.  Supervisors and managers must have bias training (annually) before they provide performance evaluations to their direct reports.  Employees participating in interview and hiring processes must have bias training before engaging in evaluating candidates (quarterly at minimum). When it comes to ally and bias training, repetition matters.  Employees must hear things six different times, in three different times for them to hear it – and then that absorption lasts about 3 months.  Over-communication and over-training matters when it comes to addressing workplace bias.

Go Bolder:  Being an ally and exploring our own unconscious bias must regularly be explored to create a truly inclusive and respectful culture.  That doesn’t mean a ten-minute section in a standing monthly division meeting where a leader discusses a few bullet points.  It means that weekly, employees are asked to reflect and discuss in small teams or discussion groups around topics of personal bias, how it shows up at work, how they can override their bias, and how to be an ally.  A organization must commit to the conversation being a regular part of employee interaction and engagement.

6. Coaching, Training, & Mentoring

Coaching, training, and mentoring programs that treat all participants in the same way is ineffective.  We know every employee has different skills, strengths, and growth opportunities.  We also know that those things typically look different for men versus women.  For example, we know that statistically men are more comfortable and confident advocating for themselves, selling their accomplishments, and asking for the promotion or raise while women are less likely to advocate for themselves and even less likely to do it successfully.  That is a barrier to advancement for women. As a result, female employees require targeted training and resources built intentionally just for them, not just management, HIPO, or leadership training that’s blanket applied across all employees.

We also know that leaders are more likely to mentor people like themselves, informally.  That greatly benefits men in most organizations because they’re often tapped and mentored by male executive leaders.  Mentoring programs need to be intentionally structured and applied across the organization, business units, leadership level, and gender.  While single-gender mentoring relationships can be extremely valuable, it’s important to provide female employees one-on-one access to male leaders within the organization, as well.

Go Bolder: Lots of organizations hesitate to provide training opportunities that are just for female leaders or they will push that responsibility to the women’s engagement/employee group.  The reality is that most leadership training is written for men, by men, for the skills they believe men need to lead companies.  Instead, try training men for the leadership competencies that women more naturally possess and vice versa for women.   We have to start with the assumption that men and women equally bring assets to the table and that each gender can learn leadership skills from each other.

Phew, you made it.  As you can see, becoming a great place for women to work requires an intentional approach that looks within every layer of the organization.  This blog barely scratches the surface of how an organization would make the transformation.  This blog serves as step one on the road to becoming a great place for women to work – not just a “best places to work”. The reality is that you are probably doing pieces here and there, but we’re proposing bolder moves, intentional action, and faster speeds.

We have to stop saying “someday” to gender equality and start saying “now”.

We’d love to help you get there, faster [okay two shameless plugs]. 


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