Creating a platform for women to thrive in the workplace

Benjamin Kluwgant · 09 Sep

Having a gender balance in a team is important for more than just a workplace equality and diversity inclusion perspective. When HR managers ensure that women are equipped with the tools they need in order to thrive, the workplace will be poised to achieve the most tremendous results.

The workplace needs to be a haven where every single employee is empowered to achieve their maximum potential, regardless of their gender, race, religion or background. In order for this to be achieved, HR managers need to create and nurture workplace cultures that are infused with diversity – anticipating all the potential challenges that a diverse range of people might face.

By its definition, diversity means a great deal of variety and difference, and if HR managers are looking to be as inclusive as possible, they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the different dynamics that diverse groups possess.

Difference in gender is perhaps one of the most polarising and glaringly obvious types of diversity that exists in the global workforce. Given its significance and constant relevance, catering for the gender related needs of the people within an organisation is crucial in empowering them to reach their potential.

Right the wrongs of the past

One of the most important ingredients of gender conscious work environments is the ability to tailor the workplace policies to help meet the needs of women.

While it might be taken for granted today, it wasn’t that long ago that the world (and Australia) oppressed women by denying them their rights to equality of treatment. In those days, most cultures didn’t allow for women to vote, drive, receive fair wages or enrol in certain academic programs.

Even today, there’s still a huge gap between the way men and women are treated in the professional world.

Over the last few decades, as societies have continued to evolve into becoming more conscious of gender equality, there have certainly been positive developments in the way the women of the world (and more specifically, the workplace) are treated.

But there is so much more that needs to be done. There are still countless organisations that don’t put enough of a focus on making their culture more conducive and adaptable for the unique challenges that women in the workforce face.

And whose responsibility is it to ensure that women are treated equally and empowered to work hard and reach their potential? It’s you – the HR manager.

The evolution in the way that women are treated in the workplace hasn’t happened on its own. It’s thanks to the tireless efforts of the many activists around the world, who have devoted their lives to raising awareness about the inequalities that women experience and offer solutions as to how to rectify them. These activists range from inspired and driven individuals, to full-fledged organisations.

One such organisation is Australia’s own trailblazing startup, WORK180.

With offices in Australia and the UK and continuously expanding, WORK180 provide job applicants with a transparent directory of endorsed employers who support diversity, inclusion and equality. They achieve this by working closely with employers in helping them develop policies and procedures that encourage and promote equal rights in the workplace.

On their website, WORK180 outlines what they are all about nice and simply:

“Our mission (and hopefully yours) is to put an end to workplace discrimination, so that everyone is valued equally, and businesses can enjoy the benefits of a truly diverse workforce.”

Keep your policies gender neutral

To learn a little bit more about how HR managers can create environments that treat women fairly, we reached out to the inspiring and accomplished CEO of WORK180, Valeria Ignatieva – who had many pearls of wisdom to share when it came to discussing diversity inclusive workplaces.

According to Ignatieva, one of the underlying challenges that women face is that they are “treated differently”, and if an HR manager can focus on keeping things neutral, many of the difficulties that women face will become obsolete.

“Women do not want special treatment,” explained Ignatieva, “Which is why it’s important to make all policies gender neutral; from flexible working through to parental leave.

“Companies must have clear policies and values in place that accommodate a wide range of employees and their life circumstances.”

Ignatieva also explained that part of taking on this approach is by having frank and honest discussions with all employees about the “types of arrangements” that would work best “for them, and for the company”.

But Ignatieva stressed that if HR managers are looking to inspire other people within their organisation to follow suit, they need to be more vocal about it.

“It’s so important to share the stories about employees who adopt these policies.

“By publicising these stories, it ensures that everyone feels comfortable enough to bring up things like flexible working with their manager, something which plays a big role in building diversity inclusive workplaces.”

How do you know if you’re doing it right?

Given that there are so many nuances that relate to treating people equally, it can often be unclear as to whether the approach that you’ve taken is actually effective and achieving the desired result.

But, according to Ignatieva, notwithstanding those nuances, there are ways to gauge the level of diversity inclusion that an organisation keeps. 

“A good way to gauge how your company is performing with regards to meeting gender equality and other diversity targets is to compare your policies against your peers.

“Policies on flexible working, equal pay, parental support, career development, and employee assistance, are all areas that can be quite generic.

“This being the case, if the HR manager finds that they are falling behind in areas that their peers have already addressed, it probably means that they aren’t doing enough to bring their workplace standards up to scratch.”

Ignatieva also mentioned that as part of their mission in setting the benchmark of what a diversity inclusive workplace should ideally look like, WORK180 has created an HR Health Check tool – which is a 10 minute questionnaire that shows organisations where they stand on the “progressive policies” ladder.

 “For HR managers and employers, the Health Check tool is a great resource to help understand what other companies are offering employees.

“For employees, the tool provides an opportunity for a discussion with their employer about the kind of workplace arrangement that they would like to see within their own company.”

How to approach setting up your equality and diversity policies

It’s pretty easy to preach diversity inclusion but delivering on those promises is what will really make a difference.

The best way to implement gender equality standards in an organisation, is to integrate those standards into the Diversity Inclusion (D&I) policy that should already be in place.

(And if you don’t have one of those in place – you better roll up your sleeves because you’ve got a lot of work to do!)

In order to find out about how Australia’s female led businesses go about developing all-star D&I policies, we reached out to Filipa Araujo – the Program Director over at SheStarts.

SheStarts is an Australian accelerator program that has achieved tremendous results in empowering female entrepreneurs to pursue their business ideas. It is Australia's only venture-backed startup program designed to help women entrepreneurs build big tech businesses.

When asked whether or not the ‘ideal D&I policy’ exists, Araujo responded that while such policies need to be tailored to the specific requirements of each organisation, there is certainly an ideal approach to take when piecing them together.

Araujo broke that ideal approach down into three criteria.

  1. Policies should be developed “together with representatives from the groups they are targeting”.
  2. They should be “forward thinking” and be built to help the organisation “achieve its ultimate diversity goals”.
  3. They need to be “dynamic” in the sense that they can be “adjusted based on the feedback that is frequently collected”, and adaptable to the “emerging needs” of the workplace.

If HR managers take on this approach when putting together their organisation’s D&I policies, the atmosphere that they will have created will mitigate the challenges that the women who work there might face.

Make re-entry into the workforce seamless

One of the more common challenges that people face in the workforce has been balancing their work and family lives – which has historically been a barrier to their achievement in the workplace.

To learn about how to HR managers can help women in the workplace by making this challenge easier, we had a chat with Sally Elson, head of People Advisory and Talent at MYOB and heavily involved in MYOB’s Developher program.

Developher is a pioneering initiative that offers paid scholarships to women who are changing careers or looking to re-enter the workforce. The women who participate get to learn from MYOB’s highly proficient engineers and experience managers, all while being employed by MYOB full-time without having to show any previous experience.

Elson explained that one of the challenges women can experience that relate to balancing family and work is finding a “sense of belonging” while integrating back into the workforce after childbirth.

Due to the emotions that women experience after of childbirth, their need to be supported and feel like they belong can really be exacerbated. To deal with this challenge, Elson pushed the idea of building “strong connections” and “kinship” within the workforce.

 “In order to make it easier for women to find a sense of belonging as they re-enter the workforce, we have put a focus on building strong connections and feelings of kinship between the women in each cohort, as well as with a mentor from a previous cohort.”

While Developher is a unique work environment in the sense that it is a program that only targets women re-entering the workforce, this mentality of camaraderie and support can easily be replicated in almost all other work environments.

If HR managers foster those types of environments, people are far more likely to feel like they belong, regardless of their circumstances.

Hire based on merit instead of experience

Having an imbalanced gender ratio is an issue that exists in many different industries, some of which are heavily and unfairly misrepresented due to the predetermined and sexist social norms of the past.

Combatting this major issue is one of the ways to ensure that your workplace is genuinely gender inclusive.

According to Elson, a great way to deal with this is problem is by focusing on the skillsets that are required to complete jobs, rather than industry experience.

“There is a real opportunity to identify the transferable skills required for the roles and recruit for those rather than the specific experiences required.

“Being able to explain the underlying competencies should help a much broader range of candidates to see themselves performing that role and not being defined by the gender stereotypes that are aligned to industries.”

Technology has been playing an instrumental role in helping HR managers eliminate biases and leveraging off the available tech solutions is a great way to solve any sort of gender ratio issues that your organisation faces.

Holding ourselves accountable

At the end of the day, the way to eliminate gender discrimination, or any discrimination for that matter, ultimately comes down to understanding that placing people into boxes or under banners only creates separation, frustration, counter-productivity and a general sense of negativity.

In the context of this write up, the responsibility of adequately addressing such discrimination lies in the employer’s or HR manager’s hands – but on a more macro level, everyone needs to play their part in helping our world become a more inclusive place.

Since we all spend so much of our time in the workplace, if we can train ourselves to become more conscious about gender discrimination, our efforts will hopefully ripple their way into the other areas of society, and we can become even closer to living in a world free of discrimination, and filled with diversity, inclusiveness and positivity.