What to Do About Employees Who Consciously Exclude Women

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Conscious “excluders,” who despite various corporate interventions, continue to treat some folks differently due to their social group membership, may help explain the recent stagnation in progress toward gender equality in organizational leadership. While excluders’ excuses for such behavior vary, the outcome is quite consistent: Excluders disadvantage women’s employment opportunities, perpetuating inequality in various ways. The authors present five concrete practices to try to keep excluders out of your organization in the first place and to identify and appropriately deal with those who are already there. This story of exclusion isn’t exclusive to gender diversity. These practices can detect the bad apples who exclude women, mothers, childfree women, people with disabilities, members of racial and ethnic minorities, mature employees, LGBTQ+ persons, etc.

“Unconscious bias” and “inclusive leadership” have become diversity buzzwords. This makes sense given recent research highlighting how related trainings — when facilitated and implemented properly — are key ingredients for cultivating and sustaining a diverse and inclusive workforce. But what should companies do about leaders who continue to display unquestionably conscious bias?

These are the conscious “excluders,” who despite various corporate interventions, continue to treat some folks differently due to their social group membership. These few often highly influential people may help explain the recent stagnation in progress toward gender equality in organizational leadership. In fact, our latest study of 90 companies and more than 320,000 employees in Switzerland showed that the share of women in leadership positions only increased 1% over the last five years. But this trend is not specific to Switzerland; it’s echoed in statistics across the globeNew research specifically pinpoints bias and exclusion as stalling mechanisms in our progress toward greater gender diversity in STEM.

Maybe you know someone like this: The professor who refuses to hire any female doctoral students or invite other women from the department to after-work drinks “because his wife gets jealous [or dishonored].” It could be the finance guy who — despite having no women on his team — complains that there’s no chance he’ll get promoted now because “they all go to women.” Perhaps it’s the business owner who refuses to hire young women because “they all get pregnant and leave,” causing an inconvenience for employers. Or it’s the board member who insists that women still perform the lion’s share of caregiving “because that’s how it’s always been” and “they’re just better at it.”

While the justifications vary across these examples, the outcome is quite consistent: Excluders disadvantage women’s employment opportunities, perpetuating inequality in various ways:

  • Disadvantage in hiring and promotions: The bias that can negatively affect an individual applicant’s hiring or promotion success comes in two forms: Direct bias caused by a hiring manager’s bias affecting their own decision, or indirect bias caused by channeling the bias of another (like the previous example of the professor’s wife).
  • Work-family policies: Comments like those of the board member above inform a company’s work-family policies, their use, and reactions to their use throughout the company via top-down influence and leaders’ role-modeling behaviors. They underline women’s caregiving and undermine men’s caregiving, the latter of which is also a powerful aspect of inequality that imposes a counterbalancing effect on women’s careers. For example, even despite new laws granting two weeks of paternity leave to new fathers in Switzerland, there remains managerial discretion in when and how it’s taken, and negative coworker reactions may still inform whether or not employees use the benefits.

Unconscious bias and inclusive leadership interventions work particularly well for employees who are already less biased and motivated to improve diversity in their organizations. But while further polishing the “good apples” is having positive effects, a little attention on the “bad apples” might encourage progress toward successful diversity recruitment, retention, and promotion. To do so, businesses should employ concrete practices to try to keep excluders out of your organization in the first place and to identify and appropriately deal with those who are already there:

  1. Establish a clear definition of exclusion that includes specific individual behaviors (e.g., inviting the same, incomplete part of a team for lunch or after-work drinks) and organizational behaviors (e.g., scheduling meetings or important work events on various religious holidays or after hours, or insisting that sports remain the annual team-building activity).
  2. Make inclusion — as well as (a lack of) exclusion — explicit hiring criteria. Contacting candidates’ references can often reveal excluders before they make it into your company. You can also ask candidates to write or speak about their specific experience with and approach to working with individuals from diverse communities, as well as how they might foster inclusion at work and in their teams.
  3. Make inclusion — as well as (a lack of) exclusion — explicit performance criteria. Clear, measurable criteria and accountability are key here. Accurate, up-to-date data can be integrated into 360 performance reviews alongside assessments of other organizationally relevant KPIs and used to identify potential excluders in their annual performance reviews. For example, if a specific leader performs consistently poorly according to evaluations by their direct reports and the behavior continues after a formal warning, they might be moved, demoted, or even removed due to a lack of progress. Digital health company Biogen uses this specific practice in their organization.
  4. Make inclusive leaders visible. Reward inclusive leaders with incentives and recognition, such as highlighting them as role models within the organization, publicly recognizing or celebrating inclusive behaviors and practices, or linking specific inclusive behavior to bonuses. For example, The Lego Group tracks, promotes, and celebrates some of these leadership initiatives.
  5. Use anonymous hotlines for “exclusion” whistleblowers to facilitate confidential reports of exclusionary acts — perhaps particularly when perpetrated by leaders — because those who speak up to intervene often face backlash.

Although we’ve largely focused on gender diversity thus far, this story of exclusion isn’t exclusive to gender diversity. Excluders can convey subtle and ambiguous discrimination toward people of various (and often numerous) backgrounds. These practices can detect the bad apples who exclude women, mothers, childfree women, people with disabilities, members of racial and ethnic minorities, mature employees, LGBTQ+ persons, etc. In other words, this essentially extends Bob Sutton’s “No Asshole Rule” to the diversity and inclusion space to promote the notion of a “No Excluder Rule” — no matter the group being excluded.

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