For a Gender-Balanced Workplace, Think Culture, Not Quotas

A Few Steps in the Right Direction

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Gender inequality is an issue many companies are grappling with. For some, the solution has been to establish recruitment quotas. While well meaning, hiring goals for females are, quite frankly, offensive. As a career-driven woman, I don't want to be considered for a job because of my gender, but rather for my experience and capabilities. And l want to work with smart, talented people, regardless of gender.

Becoming truly gender balanced isn't a recruitment or promotion problem. It's a culture problem. And it won't be resolved until employees are treated as people rather than workhorses. Here are some steps in the right direction.

Recognize that not all women want to be at the top

Women hold 22% of senior management positions, and only 26 women serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to Pew Research Center. While there's improvement to be made, criticism of these stats assumes women want, and fall short of, senior management positions -- two things I don't often find true. Assuming a position in a company's C-suite -- with all the stress, long hours and inflexibility that entails -- may be the ultimate dream for some, but not for everyone. No woman should feel pressured to "lean in" when she really wants to "lean back."

For the women who do want to be at the top, mentorships could help them get there. My first boss took me under his wing and educated me on the entire business so I could establish my desired career path. Within a few years, I became head of communications. By actively building networks of mentors, companies can help women not only learn how to be leaders, but also identify the unique motivations and strategies that will get them there.

Close the confidence gap

While men and women have an equal desire for advancement at the start of their careers, men are more likely to receive early promotions, according to a study by Lean In and McKinsey. We could chalk that up to gender bias, but it's also true that women are less likely to ask for a promotion or raise. A big factor at play here is confidence. Society does not encourage women to stand up for themselves, make demands or even negotiate. That's an enormous issue for women in the workplace -- and a problem for companies seeking the benefits of gender balance. In just six months of working with my first boss, I was made to believe I could do anything I fully committed to doing. That early confidence boost has had a continuing impact on my career.

Organizations interested in becoming gender balanced must help employees -- male and female -- build confidence in the areas in which they feel most unsure. Resources dedicated to helping employees develop a deeper belief in their abilities, learn negotiation skills and strategize for career growth (with or without a family) are small investments that could greatly impact the growth of every worker.

Smooth the reentry process

One of the largest issues facing women is an inability to strike a satisfactory work-life balance. Some six in 10 women cite family responsibilities as the reason they aren't working; among women identifying themselves as homemakers, nearly three-quarters say they would consider returning to work if offered flexible hours or the ability to work from home, according to a Kaiser Foundation/New York Times/CBS News poll.

Unfortunately for women in the U.S., pausing a career to have a family is rarely a viable option. Unsupportive maternity-leave policies are problematic, but even more so is the inflexibility that comes when new moms reenter the workplace.

I took six weeks off when I had my first child and another nine when I had my second. Each time, I immediately returned to a 40-hour workweek with little acknowledgement that my life had fundamentally changed. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law living in Germany (where parental leave laws are much more progressive) put her career and current position on hold for nearly two years and returned to work when she and her family were ready, not her employer.

In lieu of legislation, employers in the U.S. should put their own policies in place that support working parents' new responsibilities -- in and out of the office. Women who have started families can be even more of an asset to employers, having gained an immense array of skills in managing their own and their children's lives. My own children have taught me so much about curiosity, a key driver of innovation in business, and I truly believe that being a mom has made me a better leader.

Establish a culture of caring

Building a gender-balanced company ultimately comes down to caring about employees. It's not about talking up female empowerment or establishing quotas, but about putting real policies in place that show you understand the support your employees require. Mentorships, training workshops, on-site daycare, and the ability to take time off to work on a passion project are the sorts of measures that will spark organic change and ensure your business benefits fully from the entire talent pool.

Yvonne Bond is global head of communications and network initiatives, Havas Worldwide

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