How to foster gender balance and inclusion

Vlerick Business School has developed a method for assessing and improving inclusion within organisations, writes Katleen De Stobbeleir

Reflecting society’s diversity within business has become a topical and pressing issue as leaders come to understand that embracing difference within the workforce, and listening to a range of perspectives, will benefit their organisations. One important element of diversity is gender balance; the UN has named gender equality as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved before 2030. There have been many successful efforts to tackle this issue, both in business and wider society, but huge strides are still needed to create a truly equal and inclusive environment.

This mission involves tackling gender imbalances in business and ensuring women can participate fully and have equal opportunities in leadership and decision making, but many businesses struggle to put in place methods and initiatives to achieve this.

 A common way in which companies address this is to look at the number of women in their teams, in management positions, and on their boards. They may invest in the recruitment and promotion of women and set quotas for women in management roles. Governments and trade bodies support this agenda, with the European Union proposing that there should be a 40% quota for women on company boards within all organisations. 

But a focus on the numbers is only half the story. Simply boosting the number of female employees within organisations, so that there is an even split, does not automatically allow businesses to benefit from diversity. And putting too much emphasis on quotas can have the opposite effect to that desired. 

Speaking to employers as part of my consulting projects at Vlerick Business School, I have learned that many companies have diversity initiatives in place, but are still not seeing the practical benefits. So why are organisations still struggling to make diversity ‘work’ for them?

Diversity and inclusion

Focusing on diversity only reaps rewards when organisations also actively foster an open and inclusive environment for their staff. Organisations must create a culture of both diversity and inclusion (D&I), not simply one or the other.

Many organisations are implementing what they believe to be transparent, sophisticated and well thought-out diversity initiatives, and expect there to be a direct correlation between their level of investment in these initiatives and enhanced levels of creativity and productivity within their organisation. This, however, is not the case, and when it comes to maximising D&I, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

To help individual firms measure workforce D&I and to understand what they are doing well, and what needs improvement, I worked with an established research team to create Vlerick’s inclusion scan, which assesses organisations and offers them advice on how to improve. 

How the scan works 

The first element of the scan is a questionnaire for HR and D&I professionals, to assess how they are working to improve gender balance within their processes and procedures. This focuses on seven strategic areas: vision and strategic policy, leadership, HR and personnel policy, internal communication, quality assurance and monitoring, agreements with external stakeholders, and diversity networking. The second part considers employees’ perspectives. This is less about company initiatives and more about how employees feel. Staff are asked how included they feel within their team; whether or not they can express themselves freely and openly; whether they feel themselves to be ‘different’ from their colleagues, and whether they feel that they contribute to a greater purpose in the organisation. 

After collating the answers, my team and I are able to ascertain the organisation’s level of maturity in terms of inclusion. In this way, the scan makes each organisation aware of its current position with regards to inclusivity, and its areas for improvement.

Feedback provided to organisations aims to reflect on their current initiatives and analyse how effectively they are working. It highlights areas in which they are struggling, or policies that are not helping to create an inclusive environment. 

As well as enabling organisations to become more inclusive, the scan sparks a wider discussion around diversity and demonstrates the importance of adopting an inclusive culture not just in business, but also in society as a whole. 

Enhancing inclusion

There are many steps, large and small, that organisations can take to create a more inclusive culture, but to identify these, a tailored approach and customised strategy are required.

For example, all-women networks allow female employees to connect and share opinions on current initiatives and the inclusivity of the working environment. Reverse mentoring, meanwhile, involves women regularly sharing their perspectives on inclusivity with senior management.

Sponsoring is an underused, yet effective, way to help women feel included in the organisation’s practices. This involves senior management coaching younger, more diverse members of staff, and taking a level of responsibility for their career progression. They are charged with creating opportunities for these staff members to develop and progress within the company. 

Inclusivity is about giving everyone in the organisation a voice, and the ability to express their opinions. Meetings are a small-scale example of this, where shy and reserved workers may struggle to speak up, and feel overlooked as a result. Changing your meeting culture to ensure everyone is able to have their say is an important way to ensure all workers feel represented. 

In addition, people often act differently to the way they think, which can be a result of their wish to hold up a particular public image, or  something that is just an unconscious process. By uncovering these forms of bias, a more inclusive culture can be created.

None of the above examples will improve inclusivity in each and every organisation, which is why the scan offers tailored solutions. One solution may work for one workplace but not for another. Therefore, a customised mixture of policies and initiatives is the best way to improve inclusivity. 

The benefits of inclusion for organisations

When diversity is accompanied by inclusivity, it can only benefit businesses. Organisations with a visible environment for D&I better reflect society and are likely to be viewed in a more favourable light, commercially speaking. However, there are a number of internal benefits too.

When leveraged correctly, the various perspectives and skills contributed by a diverse workforce can lead to enhanced creativity and productivity – positively impacting on the organisation’s financial performance as a result. The different ideas articulated by a more diverse range of voices will also allow firms to be as innovative as possible and challenge an industry’s status quo. 

Firms that do not have this diversity of thought can stagnate and miss out on innovation and growth opportunities. Ultimately, they may become stuck in their ways, growing increasingly irrelevant and unrepresentative of customers and wider society. 

Not only does an inclusive culture nurture the most creative, productive and innovative staff possible, it also helps organisations to attract and retain top talent and supports collaboration within teams, enhancing wellbeing by creating an environment in which everyone is heard.

Multilayered approach

Taking a multilayered approach to inclusion is the key to success. To foster an inclusive environment, organisations must have leaders who are committed to the cause, a strong HR policy around inclusivity, and employees who feel included and are able to help their colleagues feel the same way. If these three areas are addressed, an organisation will be well on the way to achieving maximum inclusivity and will begin to reap the benefits of an inclusive culture.

Katleen De Stobbeleir is a Professor of Leadership and Coaching at Vlerick Business School. She is also Head of the Vlerick Women Inclusion Scan Research Project, alongside senior Vlerick researchers, Angie Van Steerthem and Evelien de Ferrerre, and non-profit consultancy, KliQ vzw. 

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