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Dear CEO: It’s time to lead on gender equality

Man standing out in a crowd

You’ve seen them — maybe even in your own company.

Too often, efforts to create a gender diverse and inclusive workplace stop at standalone efforts that check off “the gender equality box” — initiatives like one-time diversity workshops or employee resource groups attended only by women.

While these efforts may raise awareness of the barriers women face, they rarely create sustainable change.

At NEW, we believe in a “top down, bottom up” approach, which emphasizes the need for a company’s top leadership to strongly advocate for policies and programs that help everyone in the organization benefit from a gender-equal culture.

Commitment is key

Rick Gillis, president of Young’s Market Company, a NEW partner company, understands the critical role he plays in closing the gender opportunity gap and developing female leaders. “The facts are indisputable,” he told me. “Gender balance and overall diversity are critical to any organization’s long-term success.”

Nothing, he said, has more impact on a company’s performance than leaders taking personal responsibility for supporting the recruitment, development and retention of a talented and diverse workforce, one that truly represents their customers and the communities in which their employees work and live.

“Erasing decades of conscious and unconscious bias and behavior must come from the highest levels of the organization,” Gillis said. “Driving awareness and accountability across every level creates sustainable change. Tools, technology, training and processes are essential to becoming more capable of changing culture over time.”

While proud to say Young’s Market Company is committed to equal pay for similar jobs across the organization, Gillis recognizes the company has more work to do. “We’re on a relentless mission,” he said. “We’re making meaningful progress and will continue our journey with vigor, determination and commitment.”

C-suite checklist

Here are some top-level strategies to create significant organizational change:

Make gender equality a strategic business imperative. It’s not enough for c-suite leaders to take a soft lead on gender equality. They must publicly advocate for women’s leadership in their company and the industry. Gender parity should be a routine topic of discussion when business plans and success metrics are reviewed. Team leaders throughout the company not just in HR — should be held accountable for gender diversity and inclusion goals.

Create a company culture that values gender equality. Even the strongest message supporting women’s leadership will ring hollow if c-suite leaders don’t model inclusive behavior and allow for safe and open dialogue. They are in the best position to put an end to bias and harassment and hold others accountable for following company policy and for their workplace behavior.

Uphold gender-neutral policies that are consistent, flexible and fair. The practices should include equal pay by job title, family-friendly policies that help drive gender equality and support systems that enable family care.

Ensure open access to all jobs. Company leaders should make certain women and men are equally enrolled in talent development programs and considered for the line roles that lead to senior executive positions.

Be transparent with talent data and progress toward gender diversity goals. Top leaders should set company-wide goals and targets by function and business — and incentivize managers to meet those goals. Company gender-diversity scorecards and benchmarks should be used, with the results shared with team leaders. This will promote progress inside and outside the company.

Top executives’ strong, vocal and consistent commitment to gender diversity and inclusion will help talented women achieve their best — and help you achieve bottom-line results.

This blog first appeared in CSP magazine.

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Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 12,000 members represent 850 companies and 115 corporate partners in 22 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.