The benefits of a gender-inclusive workplace
In 2020, Cigna signed on to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles, which are designed to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. It is also our pledge to reach gender parity among our leadership within five years. We are committed to fair pay and opportunity for all our employees, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, because we believe that a progressive workplace is one that champions the collective experiences and strengths of its members. Rather than simply hitting a specific quota or ratio when it comes to recruitment, a truly diverse and inclusive workplace should go beyond surface-level changes to ensure that each individual feels properly represented, valued and respected. This can mean reflecting and acting on concerns about the perceived safety of our working environments, checking for any unconscious biases, or even ensuring that there is a balanced power structure in the organisation. With a gold award for Excellence in Women Empowerment Strategy from the 2020 HR Excellence Awards under our belt, we hope that we can share with you why we are such strong advocates of gender inclusivity, as well as a few tips on how we achieved it for ourselves.
Advantages of a gender-inclusive work culture
Beyond the moral and ethical justifications of pursuing a more equal and progressive workplace, there are a whole host of tangible benefits that come with gender inclusivity, all of which are mutually reinforcing.
Research has shown that diverse teams are able to develop more innovative ideas1. When people with different backgrounds and experiences work together, their unique perspectives often lead to greater creativity and knowledge sharing. This, in turn, produces more unique ideas that add to the company’s competitiveness down the road. Having a diverse workforce also provides a strong foundation for companies to better connect with their clients and customers, as employees are likely to have shared understandings of different experiences. Subsequently, this allows for more nuanced and tailored ideas that can cater to various customer segments and enhance the products and services provided.
When work cultures actively promote creativity, innovation and collaboration amongst employees, they are empowered to develop better problem-solving skills, which allows them to rise up to new occasions and experience greater fulfilment at work. These are key factors that bring about higher productivity and growth levels in a company. In fact, research2 has conclusively found that companies who actively exhibit both inherent and acquired diversity in their workforce are 45% more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year. They are also 70% more likely to report that the firm captured a new market. A high-performing workplace further encourages and motivates its employees to do better, resulting in a virtuous cycle that can be sustained over time.
More fulfilled and engaged employees tend to feel greater loyalty and allegiance to their company, which makes them more likely to stay longer and even recommend it to others as a great place to work. In this sense, a diverse workplace is self-reinforcing when its reputation continues to grow. A work culture that is known to value and respect diverse employees attracts other candidates who can and want to grow along with the company by making their unique, value-added contributions. Top female candidates, in particular, care a great deal about gender-diverse work environments. A recent study found that 61% of women look at the gender diversity of the employer’s leadership team when deciding where to work3. This is because organisations with diverse representation at executive levels are usually indicative of an inclusive culture - one where minority groups are trusted to shape the company for the better.
Creating a more gender-inclusive workplace
Having a better understanding of the benefits that can be brought about by a gender-inclusive workplace is one of the first steps to getting started. At its core, inclusivity cannot be forced, as it is inherently dependent on our attitudes toward it. This is why we believe that one of the main ways to create a more inclusive workplace is to address existing perceptions and concerns. The following are some tips that we have also found to be particularly helpful for us.
It is important to note that the link between diversity and the benefits that we discussed earlier is not always clear cut. Instead, the effect of diversity relies heavily on the beliefs and mindsets that we subscribe to. In a study of 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries, it was found that gender-diverse companies were more productive (as measured by market value and revenue) only when it was believed to be important and normatively accepted by their employees4. This suggests that we have to buy into the value of diversity for it to truly work, rather than simply seeing it as an obligation or having it enforced on a superficial level. As such, it is crucial to hold this conversation with your employees when you are just starting out so that you can have a better understanding of the underlying attitudes that need to be tackled.
In any company, we believe that every employee should have the opportunity to participate in the generation of innovative ideas or to freely bring up issues that are affecting them at work. However, employees can be reluctant to do so for various reasons, one of which is a lack of inclusivity. As studies have shown, when working in countries without a strong inclusivity culture, women tend to not feel psychologically safe when speaking up in their organisations5. Thus, even if these women have innovative ideas or key concerns to bring up that would benefit the organisation greatly, they might hesitate to do so. Ultimately, it is the company that loses out.
Being able to identify these key concerns is therefore important in creating a gender-inclusive work culture. We believe that the best way to do so is by building trust. To implement this, we take every opportunity that we get to check-in with our employees on their various needs and wants. When doing so, we make it a point to keep an open mind when listening to suggestions and thoughts that our employees may have before subsequently acting on them. By ensuring employees that they are being heard, it can further encourage them to keep coming forth with suggestions and ideas that can push the company to greater heights.
Our last tip is to employ a wide range of formal and informal communication channels between different levels of bureaucracy in the company as a way to encourage open and honest communications. These different communication channels can range from feedback submitted to the social committee to casual conversations that transcend bureaucratic levels. This way, employees have the freedom of choice as to which channel they are most comfortable with, ensuring that their thoughts and concerns will always be heard. All this helps build their trust in the feedback system and further encourages more open and valuable feedback. This has, in turn, allowed us to remain flexible and adaptable in fine-tuning our HR priorities.
To ensure that these communications channels are used effectively, the leadership team also needs to take an active role in maintaining them. Our own leadership team performs this crucial role as they are often the bridge between employees and senior management. Beyond that, they also help to observe the engagement of our HR initiatives, as well as to facilitate informal and direct feedback with their teams. This allows them to get a better idea of the effectiveness and success of the HR initiatives and provide more feedback should the need arise.
Over to you
With the number of women in the workforce growing day by day, gender inclusivity should be the first important step that companies should take on their path to creating a truly diverse workplace. We hope that this article has provided you with some insights into transforming your work culture to be more inclusive. The key takeaway should be that simply hiring more women in the workplace is not sufficient to achieve gender inclusivity. Rather, the mindset and culture of the company has to evolve to be more inclusive and open to the needs, concerns and ideas that these women bring to the table.
1. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017). Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?. Harvard Business Review.
2. Hewlett, S., Marshall, M., & Sherbin, L. (2013). How Diversity Can Drive Innovation. Harvard Business Review.
3. PwC. (2017). Winning the fight for female talent: How to gain the diversity edge through inclusive recruitment.
4. Zhang, L. (2019). An Institutional Approach to Gender Diversity and Firm Performance. Harvard Business School.
5. Turban, S., Wu, D., & Zhang, L. (2019). Research: When Gender Diversity Makes Firms More Productive. Harvard Business Review.