Data to the rescue: Investing in (female) employees

By Ineke Ceder and Sumru Erkut

Can companies successfully align attention to their bottom line with the current urgent calls for wider diversity and inclusion? The authors argue that thoughtfully collecting data on workplace climate and letting affinity groups address any identified hurdles towards sustainable employment are effective routes to remaining relevant.


Having been writing about issues that inhibit women’s careers, we discussed1 most recently how unpredictable schedules disproportionately hurt women because they continue to be the main care providers in most families. The absence of workplace policies and provisions that allow women to streamline their home and work responsibilities stands in the way of their upward movement and career sustainability.

Our industry of focus2 has been the U.S. non-profit regional theater world where only about 27% of leadership is in the hands of women. Our surveys and interviews didn’t merely uncover the hurdle of unpredictable scheduling. We also identified a lack of trust in women’s leadership capabilities and a dearth of mentors who are able to provide women with the needed support. These and other issues turned the U.S. non-profit regional theater — which was started by women — into a field predominantly overseen by men. While our analyses focussed on this one performing arts field, our findings and recommendations are relevant to other industries seeking to address gender parity in leadership.

The case for diversity3 in business and leadership has been made; we already know that diversity is good for the bottom line, and consider this debate addressed. While in some industries there are effects of both glass-ceiling barriers and of pipeline issues on gender parity in their leadership, this was not the case in our study. In theater, most number-two positions are filled by women. Therefore, when addressing obstacles to full representation of women in leadership, we are driven to focus primarily on tackling organisational and cultural hurdles that women face on the leadership ladder and on their quest to break through the glass ceiling, rather than on what women themselves need to change in their preparation for the top position.

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Organisational barriers can be hard to eradicate, because they are often couched in wider cultural views and biases. Regardless, each individual company or industry can take the lead on dealing with gender imbalances. The first step is to collect reliable data. The second step is to translate these data into effective action. Ideally, this should be accomplished by groups of invested employees, and backed and financed by management.


Gather your data

Efforts for effective change often start with the right data. Your organisation should collect its own or contract an external research institution to assist you. Through systematic and thoughtful data collection and analysis, you will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your company’s culture in order to achieve full inclusion.

You may think that employees will come forward if there are problems that affect their commitment to your organisation. However, just a quick overview of the allegations that the recent #MeToo movement brought to light can attest to the difficulty of coming forward, the pervasiveness of gender-based and other abuse, and how long “business as usual” is often allowed to proceed.

Supporting women or other underrepresented groups in their preparation for leadership or their efforts toward sustainable and engaged employment in your industry.

We encourage companies to explicitly ask their employees how they experience their workplace in order to uncover systemic disadvantages or even actual discrimination. However, how you do this matters greatly. A carefully designed and administered, fully anonymous survey may help you learn about your company’s climate. It can also, for example, help you identify where your company falls short in effectively supporting women or other underrepresented groups in their preparation for leadership or their efforts toward sustainable and engaged employment in your industry. For example, a survey is an excellent route to ask your employees questions about work-life balance. All employees who shoulder caregiving responsibilities are vital for the survival of your company. Ask them questions that elucidate what they need to be fully present while at work. For example, which of the offered benefits do they need in order to stay employed? Which aspects of their work provide them with motivation to remain with the company?

Further, it is paramount that anonymity is guaranteed on these surveys, such that, for example, no manager who is given aggregated data is able to identify a specific employee’s responses. Going through the efforts of gathering data is only useful when the information gained can be truthfully and completely reported and is treated as valuable feedback. Outside consultants can more credibly promise anonymity and help avoid that employees hesitate about their contributions.

Can this survey process be disruptive? Absolutely; for example, the exposure of widespread abuse at Nike4 was uncovered by a group of women who shared results of an anonymous survey. But, not every instance of identified disadvantage will be a matter which requires drastic measures. In most cases, surveys will identify which policies need improvement and which tools need to be sustained or introduced to support inclusive company practices.


Take action

The data you gather in surveys drive subsequent action steps. It is important to ensure that the employees who are affected by any uncovered issues have a role in turning them around. An effective way to ensure this is by allowing affinity groups to be formed. Affinity groups have employee members who team up organically around shared interests and common goals. The groups’ recommendations are passed up to the company’s leadership for consideration and implementation. The issues these affinity groups could tackle may range widely, and will be based on your collected data. However, considering how widespread some biases are, chances are that many organisations will deal with similar struggles.


Bias creates replication

Consider for example your hiring process. In our interviews, a theater leader reported that a colleague at another institution used a baseline benchmark against which candidates for an open position were measured: “When I asked who exactly counted as “normal” on the baseline, it was candidates who had been successfully hired to similar positions. But these were mostly men!” If this or a similarly flawed process in your employment practices were reported on your survey, an affinity group can work on redesigning the selection process. In this example, the group would design a measure of what success for a particular position looks like, focussed on demonstrated skills or experiences and not on a baseline that is created outside of many applicants’ reality. The example given here was obviously gender-biased: the baseline used did not account for any advantages that men may have had in the past in gaining the position and, when applied to new hires, would merely replicate the same results.


Address work-life balance for every employee

If your company frequently loses female employees when they start a family, your accommodations may not be sufficient to support them. Properly administered surveys, again, can identify the barriers these employees face at work. An affinity group tasked with addressing these barriers can make recommendations for change that can keep your female employees supported and committed to your company.

At the same time, your survey should also ask about work-life balance among fathers. Why do we still accept that only mothers need a more extended amount time to adjust to a new member of the family? If we continue to encourage only one set of parents to fully access family accommodations at work, we diminish the reality of both parents’ combined roles as worker and caregiver. A separate affinity group can design strategies for how to encourage the whole organisation to take paternity leave more seriously and for how to fully promote your caregiving accommodations among all new parents.

An affinity group can also address the tendency to let any struggles working parents face become embedded in our stereotyped expectations of a mother’s performance and whether she is actually committed to her job. Some of our female interviewees reported instances of being presumed not to want a leadership role. A male interviewee’s comment discussing the scarcity of women in leadership was “I don’t think they aspire for that type of leadership role given their family situations.” A stereotype like the one underlying this statement renders invisibly any ambitions mothers may have toward growth in their employment. This invisibility harms women’s careers and their chances to a top position.

Workplace accommodations need to acknowledge the full outside responsibilities of all its workers as this will benefit the company’s bottom line to retain all dedicated workers instead of having to go through costly rehires.

Conversely, we do not tend to take a man’s fathering responsibilities into account when evaluating his performance. However, a father may struggle equally with work-life balance as a mother may, but likely doesn’t feel equipped to ask for support. The old prototype of the “ideal worker”, a man with a primary caregiving wife at home, is no longer a reality, but most of our workplaces seem to cling to it. A majority of families with children have both parents in the workforce. Therefore, workplace accommodations need to acknowledge the full outside responsibilities of all its workers as this will benefit the company’s bottom line to retain all dedicated workers instead of having to go through costly rehires.

Finally, it is only reasonable to also consider the work-life balance of employees who are not taking care of others at the time you collect your data. They may feel unfairly considered as “always available”, and may face burnout or resentment. Opportunities for those employees to speak up about such treatment are necessary and will help create a culture of more equitable sharing of responsibilities between diverse groups.


Promote equity in reviews

Our study in theater confirmed what others5 have also shown: Men get promoted based on potential more often than women. Our data showed that the men in the top executive roles at the largest-budget theaters were promoted into those roles from smaller-budget theaters more often than their female counterparts. In general, women are not given that benefit of the doubt when it comes to promotion on potential. More research needs to be conducted to unravel the cause and effect in this dynamic. Some work6 shows that women believe they need to be 100% prepared for a position before they apply to it, while men do not and feel more confident relying on their potential when applying. However, it may also be that by constantly seeing men reach higher-level positions in larger numbers, women react by working harder at building out their list of experiences. 

A role for an affinity group in this process can be to work on designing a fair and equitable review process. Currently,7 in general, men tend to receive more specific constructive feedback and suggestions for growth than women do; this needs to change. Discussing specific plans for growth is essential in a review for any employee. With a manager’s help, an employee should be supported to transform any failures or setbacks into future successes. Creating a list of accomplishments is an important step. But, as long as men and women feel ready to apply for a promotion with differing levels of actual achievements — with men relying on potential and women on achievements — a review process should include help in creating a list of acquired skills and how to turn those skills into practical stepping stones toward advancement.


Make it real

Finally, to be fully effective in driving change, there has to be a mandate. The change agents who form affinity groups need access to both a public forum within your company and an ear from your highest management for feedback. And last but not least, their plans need a line item on the company’s budget once they are fully formulated and reviewed. Until we make diversity and inclusion priorities in financial planning as well as in policy development, any efforts toward reaching these goals will remain substandard, without credibility, and in all likelihood just wasted time.

Until we make diversity and inclusion priorities in financial planning as well as in policy development, any efforts toward reaching these goals will remain substandard, without credibility, and in all likelihood just wasted time.

At some time in the, hopefully, not too distant future, we should all be so lucky to see words on our climate surveys similar to those from one of our female interviewees. She had just announced to her mentor that she was expecting a child and recalled: “[My mentor] had no doubt that I would continue to do my job well and that I would want to. And that I was committed to what I was going to do. And that having a child would be an expansion of my universe and my point of view that was not a threat to my work.” Imagine that every one of your employees could be that new parent or that mentor. Imagine that your organisation reached its goal of full inclusion and had created a culture of belonging. It is possible.


About the Authors

Ineke Ceder is a Research Associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She has contributed to studies focussed on women’s leadership, adolescent development, sex education, and racial/ethnic identity. Her recent collaboration with Sumru Erkut on women’s leadership in theater informed multiple initiatives that are driving leadership change.

Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her research focusses on racial/ethnic diversity, gender equity in leadership, and development across the life course. Her work found that three or more women on a corporate board of directors constitute a critical mass which improves boards’ functioning.


1. Ceder I, Erkut S. “Unpredictable schedules disproportionately hurt women’s careers”. Harvard Business Review. January 8, 2018.

2. Erkut S, Ceder I. “Women’s leadership in resident theaters: Final report”. Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, 2016.

3. Hunt V, Layton D, Prince S. “Why diversity matters”. McKinsey & Company. January 2015.

4. Slovak J. “The power of a survey: Nike faces fallout from male-dominated culture”. Forbes. April 30, 2018.

5. Barnett RC, Rivers C. “How the “new discrimination” is holding women back”. Catalyst. April 17, 2014.

6. Mohr TS. “Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified”. Harvard Business Review. August 25, 2014.

7. Cecchi-Dimeglio P. “How gender bias corrupts performance reviews, and what to do about it”. Harvard Business Review. April 12, 2017.


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