How to Be a “Glass-Shattering” Organization

Advancing gender equality is certainly desirable, but may not seem vital during this turbulent time — yet that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, losing sight of gender equity right now is likely to put you at a real disadvantage when the pandemic begins to recede. The benefits of gender equity are numerous, but there are 10 that tend to hold true across the board — and are particularly critical in these uncertain times.

Advancing gender equality is certainly desirable, but may not seem vital during this turbulent time — yet that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, losing sight of gender equity right now is likely to put you at a real disadvantage when the pandemic begins to recede.

The barriers women face in the workplace are already well-documented, and there’s mounting evidence that the situation is getting worse amid the pandemic. In the U.S., women made up 80% of workers who left the labor force in September 2020. Women of color are shouldering a greater share of these job losses. Many women who have held onto their jobs have found their work and parenting responsibilities all but impossible to manage, or have been penalized for caregiving. And women who are not caring for children or other dependents are by no means exempt from tougher career challenges in our newly-virtual workplaces, as we have noted previously.

These phenomena — disproportionate job losses and workplace marginalization — stem from the same root: undervaluing the contributions of women workers. (While we are focused on gender, this principle applies to any systematically underestimated group. In the U.S., this most often means white women and both men and women of color, while in other regions this can mean marginalized religions or castes.) But we’ve gathered evidence that demonstrates that when you resist the biases that lead to undervaluing female talent, you can gain a competitive edge. Call it your inclusive advantage.

The benefits of gender equity are numerous, but there are 10 that tend to hold true across the board — and are particularly critical in these uncertain times. They are:

The benefits of gender equity are clear. But how does an organization work to achieve them? There’s no one way, but it helps to focus on recruitment and development. Here are examples that demonstrate effective approaches:

In the late 1980s, Jack Rivkin, head of equity research at investment giant SLH, revamped his department’s talent practices to hire, develop, and advance more women analysts. Rivkin put in place development programs — a rarity at the time — and made sure that women got the kind of actionable feedback that they are less likely than men to receive. He also instituted gender-diverse interview panels and supported flexible hours. The changes led to a huge increase in top female talent at the firm: Within four years, almost 40% of its ranked analysts were women, up from 10% before Rivkin took the helm. Over 60% of the firm’s women analysts held star status, while the average at competing firms was under 30% (and just 2% across the industry as a whole). The transformed department soon clinched the number-one spot in the prestigious research department rankings.

In 2005, health care corporation Baxter International introduced an initiative to reach gender parity in the management positions across its Asia Pacific operations. Gerald Lema, senior vice president for the region, launched an effort to recruit and develop more women. Among Lema’s moves: requiring gender parity in candidate slates for open leadership roles; instituting training programs to support career advancement within the company; creating job rotation opportunities; and establishing metrics and objectives to encourage managers to reach gender equity goals. After just three years, the company had increased the proportion of women managers in the region from one third to half, and regional sales grew 11%, almost quadruple the growth of the previous four years.

In 2008, JPMorgan Chase instituted a pilot program to recruit and develop women returning to the workforce after at least two years out, typically to fulfill parenting responsibilities — an explicit rejection of the widespread assumptions that women who take time off for caregiving are less committed. At the end of the pilot, 90% of participants were offered full-time jobs, which in turn increased the number of senior women at the firm. The program continues to this day, enabling the firm to bring in more and more capable women, growing its leadership pipeline and becoming a more attractive employer to women in finance.

The companies in these examples addressed the causes of their gender gaps directly. They worked to ensure that women had equal opportunities for development and growth. And they sent an explicit message that women’s skills and leadership were valued, reinforcing those practical remedies and fostering a culture of gender inclusion. For companies that want to land on the other side of the current crisis in a stronger position, the time to act is now.

Do you work for a glass-shattering organization? Please let us know how your company is creating the conditions for gender equity. Email us at gender@hbs.edu.

How to Be a “Glass-Shattering” Organization

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