In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s tempting for companies to make preventing sexual misconduct their top gender training priority. While sexual harassment training for all employees is important, too much emphasis on women’s protection can sometimes impede women’s empowerment — though companies cannot achieve the former without the latter.
Adding to the persisting lack of organizational gender parity, 18 million working mothers of school-aged children in the United States have disproportionately shouldered family and caretaking responsibilities during the pandemic. From virtual schooling to caring for children at home due to sickness, quarantines and intermittent school closures, too many women are not only leaking out of leadership pipelines, but they are also leaving the workplace indefinitely. Since February 2020, women in the United States lost more than 5.4 million net jobs. For companies to earn back the trust and respect of their female employees and attract and retain top female talent, it’s time to prioritize corporate gender responsibility (CGR).
CGR is a company’s ability to recognize and proactively address the unique and often-overlooked needs of its female employees, board members and customers. While the number of employees who identify as nonbinary (meaning neither male or female) is growing, and non-binary employees often experience marginalization in the workplace, for the purposes of this article, the focus will be on employees who identify as men and women — and how companies can foster more safety and belonging for women. Just like corporate social responsibility (CSR), CGR must focus on four pillars: workplace, marketplace, community and environment. For those in learning and development (L&D), this means working in tandem with senior leaders to create a culture that values the voices of its women; cultivates a robust women’s leadership pipeline; develops products, services, and messaging that empowers women and girls; and ensures that there is adequate training to protect employees from sexual misconduct.
Value the Feminine
Corporate gender responsibility initiatives must address the devaluation of feminine communication and leadership styles and create space for all people, irrespective of gender, to see the value of the feminine. In addition, women must be given opportunities to play a proactive role in shaping their organizational cultures so that their values don’t have to retroactively be integrated into the workplace.
Gender bias, which is often unconscious, must be identified and addressed wherever it shows up so that it doesn’t develop into prejudice or discrimination. L&D teams can lead gender bias training for staff or work with teams to recognize their own biases and ensure they are not influencing hiring, promotion or compensation.
Cultivate a Robust Women’s Leadership Pipeline
While for every 100 men promoted to manager only 86 women are promoted, the majority of women are leaking out of leadership pipelines at the director and vice president levels. Companies must identify exactly where women are getting stalled in their advancement; address why they are leaving or are failing to be promoted; plug existing leaks through coaching, training, mentorship and sponsorship; set aggressive and achievable parity goals; and develop programming to achieve them.
Companies with a commitment to CGR recognize that women’s leadership development must empower women to develop the confidence and competence to lead from their strengths and with their own authentic style. Women also need opportunities to speak up about the gender-based barriers and constraints they face, including micro-aggressions like being spoken over in meetings, experiencing unwanted touching or sexist humor, career interruptions due to childbirth or being asked to shoulder the responsibility for family caretaking.
Women’s leadership development often happens best in single-sex learning environments where there is the psychological safety to address systemic barriers to advancement while developing as a leader. The best women’s leadership training gives women opportunities to get up on their feet and put into practice what they are learning about themselves and how to lead others — it also provides real-time coaching and feedback so women can solidify and, when necessary, refine their leadership skills.
This is where too many well-intentioned women’s leadership programs fall short. Many programs are centered around conferences or mentorship programs where participating women are passive recipients of advice given by others. Women serving in senior-level roles and on boards can be a part of women’s leadership pipeline development, but for learning transfer to happen, women need opportunities to role-play the many conversations and skills they will need in their personal and professional lives to be successful leaders. This happens best in participant-centered, experiential women’s leadership training.
Develop Products, Services and Messaging That Empower Women
L&D practitioners should also be engaged in supporting employees to develop offerings that elevate women and girls. This includes providing training for employees in product development, marketing and sales on how to identify and eliminate gender-based bias and stereotypes that might show up in their creative work. For example, while some gender-specific products address true biological differences between men and women, many gender-tailored products and gender-based marketing messages promote stereotypes. Not only does this cause harm to women, it also turns them off as customers.
L&D can also support leaders in customer-facing roles to create gender diverse teams so that those making and marketing products and services reflect the perspectives their intended customers. When women are present on creative teams, their voices valued and their contributions acted upon, companies show their commitment to CGR. They also set themselves up to be more profitable.
Protect Employees from Sexual Misconduct
While companies committed to corporate gender responsibility should not hyper-focus on protecting women employees at the expense of addressing the other key contributors to CGR, they do need to provide adequate training for all employees on how to prevent sexual misconduct. Such training must address the differences between gender-based prejudice (preconceived opinions that are not based on facts), gender-based discrimination (acting unfairly based on these prejudices), and sexual misconduct (which can take the form of intimidation, harassment, unwanted touching and sexual violence). In addition, training must go beyond labeling what is inappropriate and harmful and telling people not to do it. Training must also offer employees the opportunity to practice what to say and do if they experience sexual harm, witness it or are informed of it.
Upstander training, another name for training that empowers employees to speak up about wrongdoing, addresses the communication skills employees must possess to play their individual role in creating and upholding a culture that facilitates safety, trust and wellbeing for all employees, irrespective of gender or any other identity marker. Through role-play and simulations, upstander training gives employees opportunities to practice speaking up when they experience or witness wrongdoing so they develop the mindset and skillset to be a trusted ally for those who are experiencing harm. Upstander training also centers the impact of behavior: It shows employees how to take responsibility when they make mistakes and communicate how they will repair any harm they have caused.
Corporate gender responsibility is a little like yoga: Once you recognize the benefits, you’ll want to make it a priority. Nonetheless, when you first start to take action, it can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming. But, just like yoga, when you focus on movement and momentum rather than on perfection and overnight success, within time it gets easier, and you start to see significant results.
Identify one area of CGR that can create positive impact for your company. Get other key internal stakeholders on board. Identify your goals and how you’ll measure success. Then, start taking action.