Most of the discussion about “inclusion” in the workplace assumes that inclusion is a singular goal, and that the word means the same thing to all executives. In reality, we often find that individuals see inclusion differently based on their unique backgrounds and experiences. And according to recent research by Russell Reynolds Associates, this is especially true of female executives.
Russell Reynolds Associates surveyed 2,167 senior executives around the world (1,587 men, 569 women, 11 preferred not to respond) and asked them about their perceptions of diversity, inclusion, and belonging within their current organization. The survey defined these concepts as:
- Diversity: Gender, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability, veteran status, political affiliation, education, experience, work style, communication style, socio-economic background, cross-cultural competency and perspective
- Inclusion: The cultivation of an environment that creates opportunities for all employees to realize their unique potential
- Belonging: The extent to which individuals feel they can be their authentic selves at the organization
and sought to measure the impact of corporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts on five common human capital goals:
- Decreased intent to leave
- Increased employee engagement
- Increased creativity
- Greater employee belonging
- Diverse talent retention
The survey results showed that while male executives might think their company is making progress on D&I, female executives overwhelmingly disagree. Compared to their male counterparts, female executives perceive their organizations to be less diverse and inclusive, and their leaders less committed to D&I.
Women also feel a lesser sense of truly belonging to their organizations. This perception of inequity has far reaching negative effects on women: Relative to men, they are less likely to have opportunities to demonstrate creativity, feel engaged in their roles, or remain with their current organizations for the foreseeable future. This ultimately results in organizations missing out on the full value their female workforce can deliver to the business and its customers.
Women believe their organizations are less diverse and inclusive
Female executives perceive their organizations’ senior leadership, board, and employee base to be less diverse than do male executives. They also feel that they see more diverse talent leaving their organizations due to a lack of inclusion or engagement. In general, women feel less positive than men that their organization aligns efforts toward fostering diversity and inclusion as part of their business strategy.
Such differences in perspectives can exist for a number of reasons. To investigate, companies can track drivers of employee inclusion by gender, and focus on areas that drive inclusion of female employees. Similarly, tracking employee turnover rates by gender, and holding exit interviews with all departing employees, can provide concrete data on when and why female employees leave the organization, and if they leave more often than men, particularly at certain job levels or within certain parts of the organization.
Women believe that leaders in their organizations are
less committed to diversity and inclusion
D&I strategy is most effective when leaders are visibly committed and modeling inclusive behaviors. The survey data shows that on the surface, both male and female executives view their leaders to be somewhat committed to D&I. But the reality is that women perceive a much bleaker situation than do men. They find their leaders to be less accountable for and supportive towards D&I. Only 26 percent of women, compared to 35 percent of men, feel inclusive behaviors are considered a criteria for promotion in their organizations.
Leaders must address such differences in perception in order to create an inclusive culture for female executives. Leaders can begin the process by having difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace, and listening to women’s perspectives. This is only possible when female executives feel safe enough in their work environment to speak up, and trust that their leaders are willing to receive, and act upon, honest feedback. Leaders should put in place feedback mechanisms and discussion platforms to ensure female executives’ voices get heard. They should also correct for unconscious bias and process bias to ensure that current behaviors and practices are truly as inclusive as they aim to be.
Women feel a lesser sense of belonging to their
organizations, and experience lower human capital benefits
Women are less likely to feel that they can be their authentic selves in their organizations. They feel a higher pressure both to conform and to cover up aspects of their personalities, which can result in being less likely to have opportunities to demonstrate creativity, feel engaged in their current roles, or remain with their current organizations for the foreseeable future compared to men.
Companies should address such differences in experience and perception, before they lose out on the full benefits provided by their female workforce. They can start by using surveys and interviews to uncover what drives belonging among female employees, and work with internal and external D&I consultants to create bespoke strategies. This might include efforts to create a safe and inclusive environment for women to express themselves, and avenues for women to have a voice in the decision-making process. Human capital strategies must reward inclusive behaviors, embrace different approaches, and ensure the definition of “best-in-class talent” is not a gendered one.
Overall, the survey results reinforce the fact that D&I strategy is a complex undertaking. It often does not have the same impact across male and female employees. It can feel like the organization is trying to hit a moving target. D&I needs to resonate with diverse groups, but also needs supportive champions and allies. It needs to make sense for organizations today, but also drive change to create a more diverse and inclusive organization in the long run. As leaders, we can start by truly listening to diverse voices and empathizing with their experiences. We must not only have the courage to have difficult conversations and ask the right questions, but also be willing to hear and react to uncomfortable answers.
JAMIE HECHINGER leads the Social Justice & Advocacy Practice and co-leads the Diversity & Inclusion Practice in the U.S. She focuses primarily on CEO searches, working with board search committees and senior management to optimize the succession planning process for CEOs and critical leadership positions. She also oversees executive assessments and counsels organizations on board development. She is based in Washington, DC.
AMY HAYES is a leader of the Leadership and Succession Practice and co-leads the Diversity & Inclusion Practice in the U.S. She focuses primarily on CEO and board advisory work, counseling boards and executive management teams on CEO and C-suite succession planning and talent assessment and development. She also helps boards and senior management teams build inclusive and effective cultures. She is based in Atlanta.
HARSONAL SACHAR is the knowledge lead for the Consumer Products Practice and a core member of the Diversity & Inclusion Practice. She is based in Toronto.