How to Recruit and Advance Women in the Workplace: An Evidence-Backed Approach

By Wei Zheng, Richard R. Roscitt Chair in Leadership, Stevens Institute of Technology

Why Focus on Promoting and Advancing Women?

The presence of women in top management teams is associated with better company performance, including improvements in work environment and values, level of innovation, organizational capabilities, and financial performance. Though these benefits have been confirmed through years of research, as Lean In and McKinsey concluded in their 2018 report on women in the workplace, women’s professional advancement remains stalled.

In response, incentives to promote gender diversity have begun to emerge. On January 23, 2020, Goldman Sachs announced that it would refuse to take a company public unless it has one woman or non-white board member. Under a 2018 state law, all public companies in California face a $100,000 fine if they do not have at least one woman board member.

So what can you do to ensure that your company is taking effective steps to increase gender diversity?

What We Know About Increasing Gender Diversity in the Workplace

I systematically reviewed more than 150 published research papers on gender diversity practices (in collaboration with Drs. Yang Yang and Jasmien Khattab) to determine the best evidence- based strategies to help your organization make meaningful progress.

Effective Ways to Increase Gender Diversity Through Organizational Policy

If you can influence organizational polices and structures, these guidelines can help inform your priorities:

Effective Ways to Increase Gender Diversity Through Micro-Strategies

Gender diversity policies and structures are critically important, but what about other approaches?

“Women Just Don’t Apply”?: Assess Your Gender Cues

If your candidate pool lacks diversity, it’s time to check your cues. We may not explicitly think of specific jobs or workplaces in a gendered way, but the cues associated with a given environment, position, or task—including those associated with leadership—can implicitly suggest a better fit for a specific gender.

The Research

Take Action

 Review your job descriptions with an eye toward using inclusive language and emphasizing communal goals.

 Take a look around: are there visual or environmental cues that might implicitly undermine your diversity goals?


Design Mentorship Programs With Gender Diversity in Mind

When it comes to retention and advancement, mentorship is a powerful tool. It pays to ensure that your mentorship program is in line with your diversity goals.

The Research

Take Action

 Structure your mentorship program so that multiple mentors of different genders is the norm for everyone.

Redesign Jobs to be Gender Inclusive

In traditionally male-dominated occupations, jobs that might be thought of as gender-neutral may be biased in favor of men’s gender-role expectations and life experiences. The design

of a position may inadvertently undermine your diversity goals by not giving women the chance to fully leverage their strengths.

The Research

Take Action

  Redesign tasks to leverage women’s strengths in collaboration and teams. Creatively building in communal elements can make the tasks more attractive to women and increase their performance.

  Create opportunities to utilize women’s talents in negotiation by having them negotiate on behalf of others, or frame it so.

Expose Everyone to Counterstereotypical Role Models

Increasing women’s representation and visibility in top management positions can help change explicit and implicit biases, for both men and women.

The Research

Take Action

  Consistently expose everyone in the organization to counterstereotypical role models, such as women in senior leadership positions, women engineers, women professors, etc.

  Underscore women’s qualifications and achievements in counterstereotypical roles within the organization, so that people perceive them as credible occupants of those positions rather than beneficiaries of diversity policies.

Reinforce Cultural Change

When it comes down to it, organizational gender diversity policies are indicators of a desire for an evolutionary shift in an organization’s culture. To make that shift—and put policy into meaningful practice—people need to be consistently reminded that gender diversity is an important goal.

The Research

Take Action

 Build regular reminders of gender diversity goals into your daily interactions.  Nurture a climate of gender diversity through leaders’ explicit commitment and buy-in at all levels.

Take A Multi-Layered Approach to Achieve Gender Diversity

There are many ways to close the gender gap in the workplace. Intentional effort and an open mind are needed to uncover hidden cues that tilt the playing field. By deploying multiple macro and micro strategies, an organization can achieve a gender-inclusive climate that ultimately unlocks women’s talents, enhances their well-being, and amplifies their contributions.

Around the topic of gender diversity, what has your organization been doing that you find particularly helpful? What are some strategies that you wish your organization would adopt?