Diversity Policies Articulated

Diversity Policies Articulated

A few months ago I participated in a diversity seminar that concluded with an interesting panel discussion that I was privileged to be part of. Responding to a question from the audience, one of the panellists—an influential female executive in the Netherlands—asked a question of her own: “If I prepared a policy document for the entire organisation around diversity broadly and gender specifically, what key elements should it include? What would you find helpful in moving our collective agenda forward?”  

The audience seems stunned into silence! After a while, one woman raised her hand and said: “I want to see gender equality.” A further period of silence followed. Another member of the audience raised her hand and asked: “Can accreditation bodies help enforce change?” A few more statements and questions from the audience followed in the same vein.  

I recall feeling a little despondent. As much as we feel our cause is justified, little will happen if we cannot clearly articulate why equality is necessary for our organisations and what changes have to take place to achieve this. Each of us needs to be prepared to describe the change we want to see and what actions—policy and behavioural, organisational and personal—are necessary to achieve this goal. We should formulate and practice our arguments and perspectives with friends and family. Doing this will ensure that each of us has an answer at hand when confronted with the kinds of questions that the speaker so succinctly asked.  Remember that, as painful as we find it, explicit and unconscious gender bias remains alive and well in many organisations and industries. My own is by no means an exception!  

So, what changes do I consider important building blocks for ensuring progress is made towards gender equity in organisations? I would summarize them under the categories of transparency, life-events, flexibility, and elevated awareness.  

  • Transparency: Organisations should be pushed to publish their gender diversity figures. When doing so it is essential also to include how job categories and ranks are divided between men and women. Although hierarchy is important for most organisations, function also matters! It is important to know when jobs are skewed towards one gender and when leadership in certain functions favour one gender over another.
  • Life-events:  Sadly, women are often penalised for marriage and motherhood.  Companies should be proactive in ensuring policies are put in place that support female employees when they have children. These should include work-time and location flexibility, parental leave that extends beyond the legal requirements of many countries, and temporary replacement for one’s position while away.  A great illustration of best-practice in this area is Vodafone. The company recently introduced a global mandatory maternity leave policy irrespective of whether the country where the employee is based places any legal obligation on it to give the level of maternity support that it considers appropriate[1].   Other life-events that should be taken into consideration include such important issues as the care of a sick child or partner, and the care of an ailing parent. Organisations are engines of society and it is necessary to work jointly and individually to weave life-events that confront us all it into their policies. As this is done more deliberately and committedly, we will see more women rise to the highest levels of their organisations and do so across all functions.
  • Flexibility: Although flexible work practices—hours and the ability to work from home—are appealing to both men and women, their importance is often greater for women. Just as a note, as appealing as part-time is for women—particularly working mothers who have elected to work say four days per week often devote considerably more time to their jobs than their employment conditions suggest they should. In other words, they end up earning an 80% salary for what turns out to be a full-time job! Furthermore, the convenience that technology brings us is often also something of a curse. Mobile phones, tablets, Skype, and the like definitely do make it easier to work anywhere and anytime. However, they also make it is easier to work anywhere and all-the-time.   A number of countries across the European Union have progressive legislation concerning parental leave for both mothers and fathers. However, practice lags considerably behind the legislation here - clearly because it is heavily influenced by cultural norms and expectations (Nasser, 2105)[2].   Most companies and individuals seeing parental leave as a women issue  - maternity leave.  However, how do we get companies to appreciate that it is a society issue! In other words, expand our acceptance of paternity leave as well. Companies employing fathers carry little, if any, of the cost of supporting parental leave. Perhaps the time has come for a policy shift so that the companies of both parents split the financial cost of parental leave and support the cost of temporary replacement staff—whichever of the two employees is actually taking the needed leave.
  • Elevated awareness: Unconscious bias remains a serious issue that has to be addressed. Research continues to find that gender discrimination is not only a conscious action. Both men and women have been found to favour males in many professional contexts even when not aware of it. A recent study found that we tend to evaluate men more positively than women when reviewing otherwise identical curriculum vitas. Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, and Handelsman (2012)[3] developed two fictitious job applications for a laboratory manager position at a university and sent them to male and female professors for evaluation. Half the faculty received one application and the other half the other. Unknown to both groups of evaluators was that the only difference between the two applications was that the one clearly identified the applicant as a woman and the other as a man. For the rest, the curriculum vitas were identical. Sadly, the results found that the male applicant was thought to be more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant by both male and female assessors! Furthermore, the salary scale suggested by the professorial assessors recommended an average of $4,000 more for the male applicant.  Companies need to develop policies and practices that help recruiters overcome this type of bias. This will not only contribute to removing gender bias at the point of entry into the organisation but can also contribute significantly to educating both men and women throughout an organisation about gender bias.

    "I’m not telling women to be like men.  I’m telling us to evaluate what men and women do in the workforce and at home without the gender bias”. (Sheryl Sandberg)    


Dianne Bevelander MBA, PhD
Professor of Management Education
Executive Director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations

[1] www.vodafone.com/content/index/media/vodafone-group-releases/2015/global-maternity-policy.html
[2] Nasser, A. (2015, April 13). Paternity leave in the European Union. One-Europe. Retrieved from
[3] Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoll, V.L., Graham, M.J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from