Can equitable design help eliminate gender bias in the workplace?

Addressing the challenges women face in the workforce

Women have long faced work environments that systematically disadvantage them. Pay disparities, a lack of advancement opportunities, and penalties for caregiving are all indicators that work environments are not designed to be equitable. By leveraging gender-centered design, companies can develop inclusive workplaces that take the holistic well-being of all employees into account.

The pandemic’s impact on women in the workplace

Women faced structural barriers well before the pandemic, such as an extra month each year of unpaid and non-promotable tasks at work and asymmetric household responsibilities at home. The onset of COVID-19 exacerbated these inequities, especially for women with young children and women of color. Women have experienced outsized pressure to manage the social impacts of the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, leaving the workforce in droves to manage caregiving, virtual schooling, and extended quarantines.

However, the pandemic also opened our eyes to what is possible: Employees saw their organizations turn on a dime to adapt their workplaces for the realities of COVID-19. The creativity and adaptability that employers offered in response to the pandemic is something that employees—especially women—do not want to give up. As a result, employers are now facing a job market where millions have exited the workforce to maintain the flexibility to care for their families, and workers are switching jobs in search of virtual options. This, along with other drivers, has left employers struggling to find workers.

80% of US workers that had exited the workforce by choice or due to job disruption as of September 2020 were women.

Key considerations for creating an equitable work environment

Organizations that recognize their employees as whole people, rather than just workers, are more effective at attracting and retaining talent. Humane workplaces consider the holistic needs of their employees to create equitable work environments where everyone feels they are included and belong, regardless of their gender identity, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. These work environments prioritize the five pillars of gender-centered design:

Employee mental and physical health
Organizations must make it a priority to develop strategies that address burnout and trauma, starting with leadership buy-in at the top and continuing with consistent and intentional practices to support employees. This focus on mental and physical health must be a long-term preventive strategy rather than short-term crisis intervention.

Caregiver support
Organizations that embrace the pillar of caregiver support focus on providing benefits that help keep employees from leaving while promoting work/life balance and supporting employee health. Such programs include expanding and/or providing stipends for childcare, nursing services, and other home- and family-focused benefits.

Consistency, predictability, and flexibility
It is critically important that we do not take shifts in strategy to virtual-first or hybrid models at face value—often, even within the same company, there is a divide between those with the option to return to work and those with a mandate to return. All businesses need to determine their strategy for offering similar flexibility and access to well-being resources for those in front-line positions as they do for those in virtual-first or hybrid positions.

Organizations that are committed to creating an inclusive work environment must understand the concept of “intersectionality” and how it relates to their workforce. Many businesses with DEI&B (belonging) initiatives that segment groups based on just one element of identity and create programs around that may unwittingly exclude others and fail to address the experiences of employees who belong to multiple groups.

Cultivation of allies
Organizations that seek to create equitable and inclusive workplaces should provide allyship and bystander awareness training to ensure that employees have the awareness, sensitivity, and knowledge of techniques to provide meaningful allyship.

Download our full report to explore each of these pillars and see how organizations are currently applying them to create humane work environments that are more equitable, inclusive, and productive.

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