Blogs / 14 Jan 2022 6 min

6 steps to building gender inclusive organisations

“We know we don’t have enough women at the top, but that is the nature of our industry / country / profession – what can we do about it?”.

With much of our work in STEM and male-dominated industries, this is a question we are asked by nearly every client we work with. The barriers are real. Some sectors have structural barriers with a lack of supply of women for entry level roles. Others suffer a poor reputation for attracting women, which makes for a vicious cycle when trying to recruit. Some industries are simply slow to change. And this varies greatly by country.

As psychologists and EDI experts, we know that achieving greater gender balance at the top requires meaningful change, and such change must address both structural and behavioural elements: the systems, structures and processes, as well as how people behave.

So how do you achieve this?

We take organisations through our Six Step Model™ – an evidence-based change process for building gender inclusive organisational cultures. Steps 1-3 are built around creating the climate for change and Steps 4-6 are focused on enabling the change. All our interventions are based on our own research and proprietary Three Barriers Model™ which identifies the three barriers to women’s equal representation in leadership.

So if you’re starting the new year with a goal to ramp up your gender diversity progress but don’t know where to start, we offer you these six steps.

Creating the climate for change

1. Ensure strategic alignment. Without clarity of vision and alignment to the business strategy, EDI efforts will have limited impact. That’s why it’s important to ensure a personal commitment from a quorum of the ExCo and ensure there is a driving coalition in place to sponsor the subsequent work. This might entail facilitated discussions with the ExCo – both individually and collectively – and a review of the organisation in the context of its ecosystem to understand the practices and expectations of customers, peers and other stakeholders around I&D.

What you’re looking to achieve from this stage is a vision for the future, real clarity of how gender diversity and inclusion efforts support the business strategy, and active engagement and sponsorship from a quorum of ExCo.

2. Define the gap and plan. Without clear goals and actions, any good intentions are unlikely to translate into meaningful change. This crucial step (which sometimes occurs in parallel with step 1) is about identifying the gap between where you are now and where you want to be and developing a focused plan. To understand your starting point you need data. What is your HR data telling you about women’s representation at different levels of seniority, across different job functions and locations? What about recruitment, promotion, succession, performance review, talent and leaver data? Where are the biggest challenges? Surveys – such as the Shape Talent Three Barriers Diagnostic™ – can help, as can qualitative data from focus groups and interviews, to explain the data and pinpoint the real issues. Time and time again we find our clients surprised by the findings of this step. The real obstacles – often invisible – are rarely what most ExCo expect to find.

Done well, this step will pinpoint the real barriers and help you create a strong plan which focuses on the 2-3 key challenges that will make the biggest difference.

3. Engage the organisation. Women alone can’t dismantle the structural barriers that impede their representation. Real progress requires organisations to engage all genders in the change journey, to understand the challenge and see ‘what’s in it for them’.  Listening circles and awareness-raising sessions such as the Shape Talent Three Barriers keynote presentation are great ways to introduce the topic in a safe way and help all employees to see the important role they have to play in making a difference.

The goal is to create engagement and energy across the organisation, building a cadre of active allies, with clear support and role modelling demonstrated from the top.

Enabling the Change

So now the groundwork has been laid it is time to start driving real change – behaviourally and structurally.

4. Build inclusive workplaces. Key to an inclusive workplace culture is psychological safety. Leaders and non-leaders alike need to develop inclusive leadership behaviours to nurture this. They need the awareness to spot personal and organisational blind-spots, a curiosity to understand difference, and the courage and skills to speak up and challenge unhelpful behaviours.  It is important to provide leaders with the skills and a safe space to practice these, such as via our Inclusive Leadership programme.

This step is all about building the leadership muscle and collective capability for an inclusive culture to thrive.

5. De-bias and align the system. Beyond inclusive leadership capability, it is critical that talent management practices​ support the organisational equity, diversity and inclusion ambitions. Behavioural science consistently tells us it is far easier to de-bias processes than it is to de-bias minds, so we always recommend working on enhancing key talent practices (such as recruitment and promotion), over unconscious bias training. Here we encourage you to look at evidence-based approaches, such as hiring in batches, removing demographic information from job applications and gendered language from job ads and company communications. It is also important to ensure supporting structures, such as employee resource groups, are clearly aligned with the EDI strategy and optimised to support these goals. This might mean revisiting the charter and objectives of your ERG to ensure clear line of sight to the overarching EDI goals.

The ultimate goal of this step is to ensure your processes and structures are fully aligned with and reinforce your EDI ambitions.

6. Develop women: At Shape Talent we are big proponents of women-only development (you can read more about the compelling reasons for this here). However, without addressing the structural barriers women’s programmes are insufficient to make a meaningful difference, which is why this is the last step of the process. Carefully designed women’s development and acceleration programmes, sponsorship programmes and group and individual coaching programmes can all play a powerful role in equipping women with the knowledge, tools and support to maximise their careers. (You can read about our powerful Breaking Barriers Women’s Programmes™ and Breaking Barriers Women’s Coaching Circles™ here).

Meaningful progress in building gender inclusive cultures and greater representation of women at the top of organisations takes focused effort and senior leadership sponsorship. It involves dismantling the structural barriers which impede women’s equal representation at the top. The good news is that real progress is possible. By targeting the real underlying barriers at play in your organisation, and addressing the structural and behavioural aspects of change, meaningful results are within reach.

If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey do get in touch.

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