Beyond Tokenism

May 16, 2022


We asked a community of learning leaders what the most tokenistic gestures were on Women’s day and the list goes as such – pink roses, spa treatments, potted plants, movie tickets, foot massages.

Not bad at all in themselves but if they are tokenistic (defined as “the practise of doing something only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly”, thank you Merriam-Webster), one day of celebration does nothing to create more inclusive workplaces.

It’s often not a question of intent; the task of gender equality is a mammoth one and many organisations are struggling to figure out meaningful initiatives to bridge the gender gap. So to mark the month of International Women’s Day 2022, we decided to invite a few leaders from organisations that have been quietly taking action over the years to make their work environments more equitable.

    These most articulate and thoughtful leaders were on the panel (in alphabetical order)

  • Charusmitha Rao: Senior Global Learning &Talent Development Manager – APJ, India, Akamai Technologies
  • Mellener Anne Coelho : Vice President & India Head- Diversity, Equity & Inclusion & Mental Wellbeing, Northern Trust Corporation
  • Prashant Michael: Vice-President, Learning and Organisational Devleopment, India and Americas, [24]7.ai
  • Rituparna Dasgupta : Talent Development Leader, India, Israel, Australia and ROW (Rest of the World), Intuit

What follows is my summary of that discussion; any errors of omission are entirely mine

How do you define gender equity?

  • They were remarkably consistent in how they defined a culture of gender equity – as being one where everyone can bring their authentic leadership style and their uniqueness to work; where all individuals feel welcome, respected and have opportunities to excel and flourish. A culture thatdoes not define how big you can dream or how much you can grow.

What should companies that are getting started on this journey avoid?

  • Things that are focused on making women feel special (tokenistic ones like roses and spa treatments) because these strengthen the message “you are not the same as men”.
  • Only measuring hiring diversity; diversity has to be measured at all levels of the talent cycle. Equity is not just about attracting women; it is also about creating a level playing field.
  • Only measuring numbers is not enough because that can make it compliance driven; it focuses on representation and it does not provide the complete picture (for example are women being hired only for certain roles). It can also create shame and resentment when people don’t understand the why. It is important for organizations to invite everyone to own this agenda because it makes business sense and because it is the right thing to do.
  • Keeping roles being reserved for women: this results in two problems; it can result in resentment from men and it can create a sense of shame for women (who feel they were hired only because of their gender and that they really did not deserve it)

What initiatives have you implemented towards gender equity that you are proud of?

  • Think equal; a campaign using inclusion nudges. The team saw that the conversation around gender inclusion was polarizing; that people were unable to articulate questions or views about the need for equity. Their intent was to create a safe space that invites people to take concrete actions towards understanding and share their point of view post that, whether it supported the need for equity or not. They created a set of 100 nudge cards and left a set at everyemployee’s desk. Sample nudges:
    • Ask seven parents who the child goes to for help with math
    • Ask five people this question “my strongest memory of growing up as a boy or a girl”
    • Reflect on what would it feel like if 20 out of 25 leaders were women

    They put up a graffiti board in a common area and people were asked to complete the nudge, write their reflections and pin it up. They had over 500 reflections on the board in just a week; found that these cards generated a lot of conversation. Since there was no prescription or judgment, people had the chance to express even dissenting points of view; this also provided the core team with a lot of content to work within subsequent interventions.

  • All of them spoke about development initiatives custom made for women leaders that focused at the belief level rather than on leadership skills. The intent of these learning interventions was to help women reflect on the mindsets that were holding them back from expressing their full potential and challenge ones that are no longer working for them. Many of the organisations represented on the panel have been running these interventions for years and spoke to the efficacy of them in getting women to claim their space, ask for the opportunities they wanted etc.
      The learning interventions were also supported in many cases by

    • Structural changes – egfacilitating meetings between them and their functional leaders; inviting the leaders to view the meeting from the lens of finding opportunities for the women.
    • Leveraging the power of peers – in one organization they got the women who had graduated from this learning intervention to form circles and share the learning they had with other women (they have over 300 women in these circles now).
    • Inviting leaders from within the organization or outside to share their experiences
  • Making pay equity a reality – there is hundred percent pay parity. Some of them have stopped asking for compensation details when hiring; the offer is based on the competency and the market pay for that role. This is such a powerful way to challenge any unconscious bias that could creep into the hiring process.

How do you manage attrition as women drop out to manage family?

  • Address the stigma associated with flexible work arrangements – when seen as being only for women, it can create a sense of shame or resentment. When men are encouraged to talk about the flexibility they need, we de-associate flexibility and women and so women don’t feel they’re called out for it. It is also important to sensitize managers around it through inclusion training; sharing stories of men who opt for flexibilityetc
  • Calling out and challenging the implicit assumption that women may have that they need to give more hours at work when they become managers; that their personal priorities will come in the way.
  • Work with data – identify specific levels and roles where there is not enough representation; understand the reason and take specific actions to address those.
  • Consistently invest in helping women challenge their own self-limiting beliefs about their roles in the family and at work (that they have to be super great at both; that it’s not ok to ask for help; that it’s not ok to ask for a challenging role if you have family demands on your time etc.)

How do you challenge the bias that women could experience?

  • Overcoming unconscious bias is the need of the hour however addressing it in pockets resulted in strengthening the feeling of men vs women. One organization invested itself in a growth mindset program rolled out across the organization based on the premise “ if you have a brain, you have a bias”. This org wide awareness resulted in people being more forthcoming about bias and challenging it.
  • Engaging male allies to not just be ok with the concept of bias but also confronting it when they see it happening (eg a woman’s voice being ignored in favour of a man’s).
  • Challenging common practices in communication – for example referring to women as “diversity hires” results in even senior women feeling like they were hired for their gender and not their competence; using the term “he/she” when talking about hypothetical managers or leaders.
  • Getting senior leaders to spend time with women who they would otherwise not have worked with. The leaders came back and said “we had no idea we had such talent; that we now understand the challenges women go through”
  • A reverse mentoring program: the team picked women from across groups and levels; paired them with senior leaders who were to get mentored. It created a lot of discomfort in the beginning but shifted perspectives substantially. The women were given topics to talk to their mentees about such as “I feel judged when..”, “The strangest feedback I’ve ever heard is…” “No one ever talks about….”

What initiatives have you taken to address slowdown in career progression for women?

  • Talent reviews are conducted blind; no details of gender or demography; or mobility.
  • A promotion process that encourages people to nominate themselves – they found that women nominate themselves lesser than their managers think; so are investing in learning programs to help women challenge their beliefs about readiness.
  • Build more networking opportunities for women
  • Create awareness for women on how to create allies and how to reach out to mentors
  • Returning to work program – assessing their competency at this point in time (as opposed to positioning them where they were when they left)
  • Strengthen manager communities – teaching front line managers to be more inclusive and to confront aggressive or discriminatory behaviour.

What advice would you have for organizations on this journey?

  • Don’t be in a hurry
  • Don’t just invest in training – has to be a systemic approach
  • Invest consistently over a period of time – don’t give up on anything too quickly
  • Make sure you have the culture in place
  • Get leadership buy in – personal accountability at that level really helps.
  • Have employee led groups to serve as catalysts to help drive the change – talk about their challenges and the changes they want to see.
  • Don’t be disheartened if things don’t change overnight – what you’re working on is social change.

How do you showcase ROI of DEI programs?

  • Define what you’re solving for at the different levels of the Kirkpatrick model – you can’t measure if you don’t know what you’re seeking to change
  • Include questions part of the quarterly employee engagement survey – this results in an inclusion index and all programs are connected to this
  • Run a separate pulse for D&I – otherwise could get sidelined
  • Measuring performance of similar units with different gender diversity ratios – if all else is same, are gender diverse teams performing better? While this is stilla work in progress, the initial numbers are encouraging
  • All senior leaders have a DEI dashboard with different factors – hiring ratios; diversity of panel; of candidates; time taken to become a manager for men and women.

What is one thing you wish you had known/done when you started work on this area?

  • I wish I had listened more to women at all levels before jumping into solutions
  • I wish I had known that it’s not an easy or fast journey; that I had asked what support looks like to the audience more often
  • I wish I had been able to ask others why they were really doing this – is it an organizational initiative or is it coming from a space of true respect for what gender brings in
  • I wish I had got my allies together from day one – not just senior management but across the board
  • I wish I had known not to make assumptions, everyone is fighting their own battles


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