An Excerpt from Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations

Released in the spring, Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations by Ellen Ernst Kossek and Kyung-Hee Lee offers fresh insights on diversity, inclusion, and female leadership in the workplace. The book is a must-read for practitioners and human resource and diversity leaders, as well as scholars and students focused on improving the effectiveness of gender diversity and inclusion initiatives within organizations.

In this post, we share an excerpt from the book, written by contributor Nina Swanson, who has been working in organization development, talent, and learning for more than twenty years.


Chapter 6 “Learning from Entrepreneurial Settings”

View from Practice: Emerging Organizational Culture and Inclusion

Nina Swanson

I work in a company where innovation is our life. The company is about twenty years old, and in that time we have grown from a firm of 2 people to 17,000 people globally. The company was acquired in 2002 by a bigger firm. It was a mutually beneficial relationship for both companies. The company grew substantially through the bigger firm and its customers. Now we are going through a fairly radical transformation as a company. Because of divergent strategies, and where we were going as companies, a decision was made that the two companies will separate. Because of this change, we are in a unique position as a company. It gives us a chance to redefine our path forward as a company. It is incredibly important for employees to continue to look at who we are and where we are trying to go.

There are many improvements related to diversity at the company. First, we have seen a significant increase in the number of women in leadership roles. It amazes me to know that by starting to say that we need to get better at something, we actually can get better at it. By talking about it, we also started doing things differently. We strive for parity in the gender composition of our company – that is 50/50. Still, we have parts of our business that are not yet 50/50. Global operations tend to be fairly female, and we have a pretty good parity there. Traditionally female occupations such as legal HR have good parity. Even on the marketing side of our business, we might have become a little bit closer. But we have got to get better.

There are several things we have implemented to help women in our company. We have expanded our maternity benefits for men and women. We are making policy changes that are not just for women but that benefit both men and women. What we have seen so far is that men realize that it is very helpful to them. I have not anticipated it, but the responses from the men, regardless of generation, are very encouraging. Additionally, we started a program to help women who have been out of the field for a while, mainly because of child-bearing. We started it in India, and we are bringing it to the United States. In India, most women tend to stay at home after having a baby. With our six-week product cycle, if you leave for any length of time, you can lose your edge on just the software engineering side. We give them eighteen weeks of an on-boarding experience to get them up to speed on where they left and where we are now, so that they can jump right in and start doing the work again.

We also have a global program to get female students to be involved in coding. For us, it is a pipeline activity to close the gender gaps in technology education. We want to get girls to get excited about computer science. We are also partnering with a renowned research center to understand unconscious bias in performance reviews. We have improved our approach to college recruiting and increasing our college hires. It is, without a doubt, a significant help for both genders as well as for broader diversity dimensions to have robust college recruiting. We want to create an exciting place that people want to come to work in.

However, there are challenges. The company is a financial technology company, which is different from a payment center. It means that we are bringing technology into a platform that is much broader than just payments such as credit and remittances. The company will continue to grow, not only by what we provide to our customers butby the acquisitions. As we were separating from the bigger firm, we were also acquiring three large companies at the same time. These acquisitions mean that we suddenly have three different cultures and expectations. We have different ways of working that are going to constantly be coming into our business, and we are struggling with many questions. How much is too much culture? How much will drive away people who join a start-up? People from a small start-up company we acquired consider us a big bad brother. This is new for us. We always thought of ourselves as an innovative start-up. It seems that we are not an innovative start-up anymore.

Moreover, the pace of our company is fast. Our website is a completely new site every six weeks, involving thousands of engineering hours. Thus, the pace at which we must innovate is measured in what we do not in eighteen months but in about thirty days. The pace also then translates to our employee experience. Our jobs are fluid. We have new jobs every sixty to ninety days. We currently have almost 100 vice-presidents, and only two of them have the same job they had a year ago. The rest of them have all got new responsibilities. In an environment where people are constantly changing positions, how do we give people a sense of career progression? How do we give them a sense of career development? Defining career is very different in this environment, and it is a big challenge.

In a tech company, what you get rewarded for is based on what you develop versus how you do it. We need to build relationships and a much stronger bench of people leaders; this is especially important for all employees but especially for women. We have not focused on people leaders yet. We have focused on whether you get cool buttons on the site. We get excited when you make a mobile app look awesome. We do not get excited when you read that somebody grows into another role. We are figuring out ways to create dual paths where we can get some really great people leaders and, at the same time, reward them for their technical capability. We focus a lot on our customers, and rightly so. However, we are also constantly looking at ways of creating an employee experience that is as profound and robust as the customer experience we strive for.

How do we create those robust experiences from the employees’ perspective? Based on these improvements and challenges, we believe this is our time to define our culture in a way that engages the hearts and minds of all of our employees and to begin building a sense of who we are. If employees believe in the passion and mission about who we are, they will have a place to be successful. We are planning to spend a lot of time in the next year looking at our mission and our values and our culture. We asked our employees what was the experience that our employees want, and they came up with four great ideas. First, they want to have feedback about how they are doing periodically to know that they are on the right path. Employees can feel lost amid the fast pace and shifting projects and priorities, and feedback can help them feel anchored. Second, they want to have growth for themselves and growth for their team. It is not about the money or the title. They want to work on something that makes them better at what they do or helps them grow their skill set. Third, they want to be cared for. They want to know that somebody is interested in who they are as a person, where they want to go, and how they want to get there. Many leaders are really struggling with this because having those real conversations about what is important to somebody can be tricky and uncomfortable. Lastly, employees want to have trust. Trust is incredibly important in an environment where there is a lot of chaos.

Through a three-day workshop, employees came up with four anchors of who we are as a culture: collaboration, inclusion, wellness, and innovation. Employees brainstormed on where we have been, where we are going, what we like, and what we do not like. For now, this is a starting point. First is collaboration. We are an internet company. We do not have offices. Moreover, we also have many people like myself who work at home. Collaboration happens through video conferencing. We spend a lot of time in that space and are doing more of that across our business. Second is inclusion. As I mentioned previously, we try to create an inclusive place fostering diversity of thought. The third is wellness. We talk about work-life balance, and how we define work-life balance is very personal. Some people look at my schedule and say they do not understand how I keep up the pace I do. However, I feel just fine with my schedule. I have control of my schedule and my day. I work at home. I can go do my workout during the day when I do not need to be in my house. Two nights a week, I have to be on the phone until midnight because I need to connect with people in Singapore. However, I do not have to check in till late in the morning on those days. Thus, I feel I have a lot more flexibility. We are acknowledging that there are different ways that people are going to come to work. Fourth is innovation. We are talking a lot about innovation in terms of putting yourself in other people’s shoes, which I call empathetic innovation. It is being crystal clear that the innovation you are proposing does not just come from within you but is also grounded in how you know others are experiencing it. Once again, while these concepts are critical to all workers, some of these themes – such as control over hours and flexibility – are especially critical for gender inclusion.

We do not have a clear answer as to where we will go with these concepts yet because they were developed very recently. We are just starting this work. Collaboration across functions has been huge throughout the process so far. What we are learning is that we will not be able to deliver for our customers if we do not work collaboratively across our functions and within our functions. We have built rewards around silos across which we function as every organization has. We are breaking down those silos and trying to see how that works for us as a company. We have a lot of work to do. However, it is an exciting time to be involved in doing it. Not many companies get to redefine themselves at this point in our career or at this point in our life. But we do, so it’s great.


Interested in finding out more about Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations? Click here to read a further excerpt from the book.

Click here to order your copy of Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations.


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