Human resources: Set protocols that create level playing field


My company has had a hard time attracting and retaining young female professionals. We’re an engineering firm staffed primarily by white males. We’ve set a goal to achieve greater diversity moving ahead. We’re emphasizing this in our recruiting efforts. We’ve begun to see some gains. I believe the numbers will continue to increase. I’m more concerned about what we’re NOT doing to create a welcoming atmosphere for the female employees once they’ve come on board. To be blunt, it’s too much of a “good old boy’s club” around here.  I’m not even sure some of these guys even know how to tone it down. What can we do to create a more receptive work environment for women?


As I’ve discussed in several of my recent articles, our workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. Minority employees represent the largest percentage of new entrants to the workforce. Further, current census projections suggest that by 2050, ethnic minorities will constitute at least 47 percent of the U.S. population. It is also expected that by 2013, Hispanics will be the second-largest racial group, moving ahead of African-Americans and behind only white Americans.

Women are major contributors within our workforce. The number of women who work outside the home has risen steadily for the past few decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that in the mid-1960s, about 40 percent of women worked outside the home. Today, over 60 percent of all women and 76 percent between ages 25 and 44 work outside the home. The number of dual-income families has doubled since 1950. Women receive more than 55 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

Clearly, more and more women are willing and able to enter the workforce, occupy significant work roles and pursue stimulating professional lives.

This is not to say that women today have it made. No, many women confront serious challenges as they carry out their work. There is the issue of the wage gap, the finding that women earn about 75 to 80 cents for every dollar men earn. There is the issue of the glass ceiling, the brutal reality that in some organizations women can only go so far, that certain roles are not open to them merely because of their gender.

There is also the issue of sexual harassment in which women are subjected to both overt and covert abuse or unwelcome attention on the basis of their gender. In light of your “good old boy’s club” remark, I’m concerned about whether some of your female hires might not find your work environment to be a hostile one. 

Finally, for many women, the most difficult issue has to do with balancing career and family choices. Women, in some instances, find themselves with tough “either-or” choices in which they feel they must compromise on the personal front in order to get ahead at work. Or, they feel they must give up some of their professional strivings in order to maintain a balance at home.

Here are some suggestions for creating a more welcoming environment for your female employees. First of all, when it comes to issues of inequity, the organization has to make formal commitments to doing a better job where its minority employees are concerned.  You mention this in your question, and I strongly reinforce your efforts. The glass ceiling needs to be broken, and equal pay for equal work must be the norm. The evidence that things are getting better will be the finding, over time, that increasing numbers of women occupy visible and responsible decision making roles.

With regard to sexual harassment, some general recommendations include the following:  First, if the organization has not already done so, a zero tolerance policy needs to be articulated, implemented and promoted. Strong messages from top management can go a long way toward informing organizational members, “We’re serious about this … we condemn harassing behavior.” Importantly, make sure victims can report abuses without fear of retaliation. Finally, I encourage you to offer a comprehensive training program that is mandatory for all employees on the topic of, “Crafting positive work relationships between men and women.” In the program, you can spell out what these relationships “look like.” You can begin to set the expectation that your organization expects collaboration and partnership from all of its employees, all of the time.

The issue of work-family balance is a pervasive concern these days. Both women and men are faced with this challenge as they struggle to deal with issues of eldercare, childcare, etc. While there are no easy solutions, one recommendation is to address the issue head on. Talk with your employees candidly about what their needs are and how the organization might be able to offer assistance. This kind of candor, initiated by the organization, goes a long way toward reinforcing the psychological contract underlying employment, the idea that, “We are in this together.” 

In exploring what the organization can do to help employees find a work-life balance, I recommend examining how the person carries out his or her work. Is there any opportunity for pursuing a flexible work schedule? There are a number of options along these lines that might help the employee address both work- and home-based issues.  Possibilities include flextime, compressed workweeks, job sharing, and telecommuting.

Finally, taking a longer-term view of the situation, I encourage the organization to take its “other bottom line” (i.e., its corporate culture) more seriously. The men who have been the majority in the organization must come to see that the times, indeed, are changing. In any organization, the tone is set at the top. Assuming that the top positions in your organization are occupied by men, I urge them to “show the way” for organizational members at-large by modeling a new “organizational etiquette.”

What do I mean by this?  Briefly, some examples include the following:

• When a woman visits a man’s office, he should rise from his desk to greet her (and vice versa).

• Whoever has a free hand should help anyone carrying too heavy a load.

• Clerical duties relating to meetings (e.g., arranging for refreshments, note taking, etc.) should rotate. 

• Whoever arrives first at a door should open it.

• Whoever stands in the front row in the elevator should get off first.

• Whoever extends an invitation to lunch or dinner, in most cases, should pay the tab.

• Organizational materials, memos and so on should be written in gender-free language.

In closing, I’m confident that by following some of the suggestions I offer in this article, your organization will do a better job retaining its female employees. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the men welcome the changes, too. 



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