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Leading for a Gender-Inclusive Workplace

Even well-intentioned leaders often omit whole groups of employees without meaning to. How to make sure you get the most out of each staffer.
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As an entrepreneur, your challenge is to get the best out of everyone. That means giving everyone a sense that they are being treated fairly, equitably, and equally. Everyone needs to feel that they are a genuine part of a team, and that there are no underlying biases that may hinder their progress.

Part of this is ensuring that your workplace is gender-inclusive -- that both women and men sense that all opportunities are open to them. A gender-inclusive workplace is not simply a function of policy, but a function of your leadership.

The following five guidelines will help you create a more gender-inclusive workplace:

1. Don’t keep talent development programs a secret. Advertise your talent development programs to everyone. Make it clear that you’re willing to invest in anyone who will work hard and go the extra mile. Never limit talent development programs to one department or one group of people. You will find some unexpected gems.

2. Connect with everyone.  Office parties, company retreats, and long lunches may be the norm for your organization, but as a leader, you have to make an extra effort to make sure that everyone is included--or at least doesn’t feel excluded. It is fine to send your team to a celebratory dinner, but be aware that not everyone can afford to spend their evening hours with colleagues. Try to organize weekend events, weekday breakfasts, or casual Fridays--whatever fits your employees’ schedules--so that everyone has an opportunity to be involved in the social element of the organization.

3. Watch your mouth. Contrary to the popular refrain, words hurt. Be careful when choosing your words. You don’t need to overthink every casual comment, but remember that some are quick to take offense to small things--a wayward remark, a misplaced laugh. If someone says your language is untoward or inappropriate, don’t argue.  Accept the criticism, apologize, and move on. The same goes for behavior. Don’t tolerate harassment, no matter where it comes from. Model the behavior you want to see in others. Put a formal complaint procedure in place so that people are not afraid to voice their concerns.

4. Pass the microphone. Make sure that everyone has not only a seat but also a voice at the table. As a leader, you must promote conversation, initiate brainstorming, and ask insightful questions to really draw people out. If you’re going to have a meeting, and only a few people have a chance to talk, what’s the point?  In these days of job-sharing and telecommuting, invite those not onsite to tune in via Skype or an online conference system. As a leader, your goal is to make sure that everyone feels involved and part of the larger organizational conversation.

5. Hire and promote. Decisions related to hiring and promotion should be based on an individual’s capacity and ability. Not sometimes or when you feel like it, but always. Establishing clear gender-inclusive policies is a good start, but everyone involved in making personnel decisions needs to be coached on the value of taking a bias-free approach. When considering a candidate’s accomplishments and goals, you have to be careful not to let personal bias cloud your decision-making process.  Adopt an open mindset, and encourage others to do the same.  

These guidelines are clear and simple, but sometimes it is the simple stuff that is the hardest to get right every time.  As a leader, keep these guidelines in mind as you move toward establishing and maintaining a gender-inclusive workplace.  Your organization will be better for it.

Last updated: Dec 19, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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