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Allyson Zimmermann is executive director, Europe, Middle East & Africa for research company Catalyst, a global non-profit that partners with companies to build workplaces that work for women. She explains how creating a culture of inclusion is intelligent business practice.

An inclusive work environment has many benefits, and is a key competitive advantage for organisations. Having diverse teams makes companies more competitive – it increases innovation and productivity, leads to better performance and problem solving, reduces groupthink, and enhances decision-making. To achieve this, there needs to be an alignment between a company’s stated values, policies and practices, and a culture that is then reflected in the rewards and recognition given.

How to create an inclusive culture

Culture change has to come from the top of the organisation. It requires intentional focus and leadership. Businesses who have made significant strides in women’s advancement have CEOs who hold senior leaders accountable for women’s inclusion throughout their organisations. It is up to an organisation, not women, to create a culture where all talent can speak up and is treated equitably. It’s a leadership challenge, not an issue for women to fix.

Men in leadership must intentionally work to advance progress for women in the workplace. They have the power to create an atmosphere that either encourages or suppresses employees’ voices. We need organisations to disrupt their own default on how they define an effective leader to ensure women are able to achieve their full potential.

Catalyst has found that gender bias is, unfortunately, deeply rooted in the competencies that organisations value in a leader. Once bias is rooted out of an organisation’s performance management systems, all talent – women AND men – will be equally valued and the workplace will be inclusive.

Equity in the workplace must be treated like any business objective with measurable objectives and targets.

Inclusive culture is vital in the wake of COVID-19

Prioritising equity and inclusion is essential in this crisis. Almost half (45%) of the working environment, according to Catalyst research, which predicts inclusion, comes from the actions of the first line manager. In a remote working space, this relationship is even more crucial to fostering an inclusive team culture.

Leaders need to acknowledge the widespread uncertainty that employees will be feeling, lead with empathy, and demonstrate inclusive leadership behaviours. Most importantly, these include humility (don’t be afraid to show your own insecurities and doubts), curiosity (get to know your team and their challenges) and authenticity (show up as you are).

The impact of COVID-19 on the D&I agenda
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In this crisis together, but apart

It is important to remember that everyone is coping with this situation differently and to give space, time and understanding to colleagues. As a popular meme highlights, we are in the same storm, but some people have a yacht, others have a canoe, and some are drowning. Empathy and curiosity are more important now than ever. A company that treats its workers with kindness and compassion at this time of crisis will be remembered and rewarded.

Women of colour also face an additional burden at work. Catalyst research calls this an ‘emotional tax’. Women from non-dominant ethnically and racially diverse groups may feel different from their work peers and this has consequences for their overall health, wellbeing and ability to advance. They often feel their contributions are undervalued and feel the need to stay ‘on guard’ for acts of possible bias or discrimination.

According to our new study, Allyship and Curiosity Drive Inclusion for People of Colour at Work, we found that 68% of people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups say that even amongst their own team members they are braced for signs of bias and unfair treatment. We call on everyone to be allies and support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in their workplace by vocally and visibly supporting people from marginalized groups. An ally will connect, listen, and educate themselves on the experiences of the group for which they are advocating for, but also take action and speak up when they witness microinequities.

Leading companies around the world have worked to break barriers and build environments where women can thrive at work. Rather than lose this momentum, companies should use this time to tackle remaining gender inequities and create a more equitable, inclusive and fulfilling future for everyone.

Discover more

According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, businesses are taking deliberate action to ensure employee engagement and a culture of inclusion. And 43% are focusing on creating a culture of open communication.

Take a look at our latest report to explore the positive actions being taken by businesses.

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