Practical Gender Equality Initiatives

There is (appropriately) a lot of discussion about gender equality in the global workforce: Many nations, including Australia, still have significant pay disparity between genders. Furthermore, in many industries women are still severely under-represented.

There is a lot of focus on this issue, and there are a number of organisations doing amazing work. However, when doing some recent research I felt there was an important piece of the puzzle missing from the discussion; once you have convinced an organisation of the importance of gender equality, and once they have examined themselves and decided there is inequality to address, what next?

There are a plethora of articles online about the importance of diversity and quality within organisations. I’m not seeking to replicate those efforts, nor am I seeking to try and tell the same narrative as others — because others are doing a better job than I. If you are reading this, I am assuming you are already convinced that:

  • Diversity within the workforce is desirable.
  • Gender equality within many organisations (and society) is still a goal we have yet to realise.

I was recently researching information on effectively building equality within organisations and encouraging diversity. The Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) do amazing work and have a very useful guide to reviewing organisational diversity and establishing a diversity strategy. However, after reading their material and that of a number of other great organisations, I was still left with a question I didn’t feel was (fully) answered; “What practical initiatives / interventions can I implement that will improve diversity in my organisation?”

In this post I want to examine some of the measures I identified as I worked through various articles and academic papers on the topic. More than anything, this post attempts to pull together useful information into a collated list rather than being a list of my own original ideas. Where possible I have included references to evidence to support the measures I have included, but I am open to all of them being challenged. I’m also confident that there are many more that organisations could implement as part of their journey I have missed.

This article (currently) also assumes that appropriate anti bullying an harassment measures are in place.

What have you seen implemented? Did it work?


This is probably the most discussed area in regards to STEM; engaging with the education system to encourage greater diversity amongst the student body and thereby increasing the pipeline of diverse applicants to choose from when hiring. This idea has the most discussions and initiatives and so I’m not going to delve into it here, but if I didn’t mention it I’m sure I would have it called out.


There are a range of practical measures businesses can implement regarding recruitment that will help encourage a greater diversity of applicants and the selection of a more diverse workforce.

Advertising Guidelines

Organisations should implement job advertising guidelines that minimise gender bias. There is evidence (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011) that shows sub-conscious masculine bias in job advertisements can affect recruiting outcomes by limiting the range of suitable applicants. Some simple guidelines for the design and language used in job advertisements can improve recruitment outcomes for very little expense. Obviously, it is important that if guidelines are developed they are monitored and enforced.

Anonymous CV / Applications

There is a myriad of evidence out there showing that knowing a person’s gender can introduce unconscious bias when assessing that person’s suitability for various roles. See this study showing teacher bias when grading students (The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015); or this study showing the same thing (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2012); this study proved that teachers in turn also suffer from gender bias when being assessed; finally, this study showed that the same bias afflicts workplace evaluations (Social Science Research Institute, 2012). This is only a sample, there is plenty of other evidence out there to support the fact that unconscious bias affects how we assess people, so organisations should do what they can to minimise that. One option is as simple as masking gender identifying elements of CV’s and applications before reviewing them. This inexpensive measure could lead to a more diverse group of applicants making it to the interview stage of any recruitment process.

Unconscious Bias Training

An additional measure that could be taken to address the issues identified above in “Anonymous CV / Applications” is to roll out training (especially to management) regarding unconscious bias to improve awareness and mitigation of the problem. Indeed, helping members of the organisation understand what unconscious bias is, and how it affects their behaviour, can be a powerful tool to help with many aspects of gender inequality in organisations. I highly recommend this training for any organisation seeking to improve their diversity outcomes.

The Rule of Thirds

This measure is potentially a little more controversial for some organisations. It is also one for which I don’t have any evidence (sorry!). I read a case study of an organisation who implemented this successfully, but have lost the link and been unable to find it. The rule of thirds is fairly simple — no recruitment may progress to the interview / shortlist stage if less than one third of the applicants included are from one of the organisations ‘targeted’ (read under-represented) demographics.

Diverse Interview Panels

This measure is designed to increase the diversity of recruitment outcomes by combating unconscious bias and increasing the likelihood that female applicants will actually accept the job if offered. Google found that women were more likely to turn down job offers if the interview panel was composed entirely of men (Business Insider, 2012).

Setting Expectations


The top leadership of the organisation need to be committed to the problem  – both in reality but also visibly. McKinsey & Co recently highlighted transformation projects such as improving gender equality are more than 5 times more likely to succeed when leaders “role-modelled the changes they were asking their employees to make.” In spite of this, gender equality is still not in the top ten strategic initiatives of most organisations.


The organisation’s entire leadership, from the board (if there is one), to the CEO, to the management, should clearly acknowledge the problem and articulate the desire to achieve diverse teams at all levels of the organisation. This should be formally included in the organisation’s strategy and be reinforced through a communication strategy. Ideally, the strategy should include targets to strive towards (note: we are not talking about quotas here, which some organisations may choose to adopt instead of targets).

Many people still argue against targets and quotas, but I believe the evidence is clear: Studies have shown organisations that stress meritocracy increase unconscious gender bias (Administrative Science Quarterly, 2010). Even without the evidence, targets are just common-sense and standard business practice; what other area of your business strategy would you allow to not have targets and KPIs with which to measure yourself against?

Job Descriptions

Explicitly including accountability for diversity in individual job descriptions has been shown to impact diversity outcomes (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1992). A simple approach to this may simply be to state the accountability. A more mature approach to work towards would be to set relevant KPIs so the accountability can be measured.

Career Progression

Sponsorship (not mentorship)

There are a number of articles and studies on “The Confidence Gap.” The Confidence Gap describes the difference between men and women when self-assessing themselves for new opportunities (read new jobs or promotions). Whilst this is a generalisation, studies have shown women will often underestimate their abilities and not apply for roles unless 100% sure they meet all the criteria. Conversely, on average men only need to believe they meet less than 50% of the criteria before they are willing to apply. The Atlantic has a great article on this (2014).

If promotions are selected from a short-list of Expression of Interest candidates, it is likely the short-list will be male dominated due to the impact of this ‘confidence gap.’ One strategy to combat this is to use sponsors. Sponsors are not mentors. A sponsors job is to understand the skills and desires of those they are responsible for and proactively identify opportunities within the business that will help them grow and progress their career. The sponsor works with their people to identify appropriate opportunities and apply, as well as advocating on that person’s behalf in the business.


Google had measurable success by running internal workshops for its female staff on how and when to put themselves forward for promotions and other tasks. This is another approach that can be taken to addressing the confidence gap.

Recognition and Rewards Framework

Unconscious bias can have a significant impact on recognition and rewards of female staff, which in turn can limit career and pay progression and lead to higher turnover rates. Review your organisations rewards and recognition framework to identify where / how you may be able to remove this bias and provide appropriate training for your staff to help then understand, recognise and correct unconscious bias. The following studies provide evidence of how unconscious bias affects rewards and recognition within the workplace:

I’m still refining my thinking on what might be the best strategies here. Some current thoughts are:

  • Standardised rewards with guidelines for types of activities / performance that warrant those rewards.
  • Formalised performance review process with questions that drill into specific desirable activities rather than just open ended questions where contributions from some employees may be overlooked and not for others.
  • Unconscious bias training and education to help employees identify and understand the behaviour.

Question: What are some techniques for reducing unconscious bias in rewards and recognition?

Office Housework Guidelines

Office housework are the busy tasks that need to be done but are generally not recognised and do not help with career progression. For instance, taking minutes during a meeting does not provide any career benefits to the minute taker, and is actually detrimental as it limits their ability to fully participate in the meeting. Such ‘housework’ tends to be disproportionately assigned to women in organisations. This problem is well described by Sheryl Sandberg in her article in The New York Times (2015).

Office housework should be clearly identified and guidelines put in place to avoid any one person (or group of people) being disadvantaged. For example, a guideline could be established that meeting secretary should be a rotating position within all teams, committees, etc.

Salary and Pay


Many organisations are very secretive about the salary their staff receive and it is considered unthinkable that staff should know what other staff earn. However, it is possible to introduce some critical transparency in this space without revealing individual salaries. I recommend organisations publish to their staff (and potential staff) aggregate salary information, broken down by relevant categories, such as role and region. This then allows staff to understand where they sit, and where they think they should sit, in a fair manner without impacting staff privacy. Why should organisations do this? Because it will result in a fairer outcome. Studies have shown (on average) women do not negotiate as aggressively as men over salary (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010) and that lack of confidence can lead women to underestimate their comparative worth (The Atlantic, 2014). Understanding what the average, maximum and minimum salaries for staff in the role you are applying for can make a significant difference to your discussions about your own salary.

State when wages are negotiable

This may seem trivial, but when offering an internal promotion or recruiting externally, make sure you explicitly state when the salary is negotiable. Studies have shown women are statistically much less likely to negotiate if it isn’t clear that negotiations are allowed, but if it is made clear to them negotiations are permitted this different disappears (The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012). It is also important to be aware of the role unconscious bias plays in conducting negotiations: women who aggressively negotiate are often penalised in a manner that equivalent men are not (Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2013).

Measure and report on progress

McKinsey & Co note that organisations which succeed in building diversity hold challenging conversations amongst their leadership – questioning where they are at and what progress they are making. Organisations should be collecting information on their progress and it should be a standard topic for leadership meetings. More than that, it shouldn’t just be a report that is tabled and forgotten, but a meaningful dialogue about whether progress is satisfactory and how to drive further change.


Properly supporting staff who become parents is a big issue, and one for which there is a lot of discussion. Key elements that I feel need to be addressed by any business are:

  • Parenting Leave.
  • Return to Work.
  • Flexible Working Arrangements.

I’m not going to address this for the moment as I don’t feel I can do the topic justice. There is some excellent material out there for consumption, in particular the report Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review by the Australian Human Rights Commission (2014). Three other resources readers may find interesting are:


The above is a bit of a pick-list of measures businesses could implement to improve their diversity outcomes, especially gender diversity and equality. It is by no means a complete list, but rather a summary of the things I have come across so far. What other measures are you aware of? Do you think some of the measures above need to be questioned?


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