Every year, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements. But it is also a stark reminder of the equity we still lack in society and in the workplace.
As leaders committed to building strong teams and attracting the best talent, it’s in our best interests to embrace diversity and equity. Companies with diverse and inclusive work cultures not only benefit from improved performance and innovation, but they also gain exponential access to talented professionals.
So how do you build a corporate culture that embraces equity? It starts with understanding.
Understand the difference between equality and equity
The terms equality and equity are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings.
Equality means treating everyone the same. That’s all well and good if everyone is starting from the same point and is facing the same challenges. But this isn’t the case in reality, where many working women face systemic biases, which limit them in terms of opportunity, equal pay and access. It’s hard to say we should treat everyone equally when the playing field itself is uneven.
Consider Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into the year women must work to be paid what an equally qualified man was paid the previous year.
Last year in the United States, Equal Pay Day fell on 15 March, which meant the average woman had to work almost three more months to earn the equivalent pay of a male colleague. For women of color, the pay inequity is even more dire. Asian American, African American and Latina women’s equal pay days fell on 3 May, 21 September and 8 October respectively.
Oftentimes, people who don’t follow or understand gender equity think it means giving women an unfair advantage over men by offering them something we’re not giving men.
But pursuing equity just means eliminating the biases and obstacles unnecessarily holding women back, so a woman has the same opportunities to earn and be recognized or promoted as a man with similar talents and performance.
In the case of pay, inequity signals that women’s contributions are less valued, which can limit them, robbing them of resources such as investments in their development or family support needed to fuel their careers. Statistics also show the prevalence of women as breadwinners is increasing, with women of color more likely to be the primary earners for their families. So inequity has an adverse impact on families where women are the lead providers. At Arcellx, we’re working to combat this by ensuring compensation is equitable across our organization.
Understand that embracing equity improves business outcomes
I’ve built two successful companies and have been on the boards of several others. I’ve learned that, if you want to build the best teams possible, embracing diversity and equity is pivotal for three reasons.
First, there is an equal distribution of talent across the sexes. When it comes to hiring, if 10 people are exceptional, the probability is that five of those people will be men and five will be women. By embracing gender equity, you effectively double your odds of getting the best person for the job.
Second, research has repeatedly shown that diverse teams outperform in every measurable way. Differences in perspective eliminate groupthink and significantly alter how people interact and solve problems. Compared with homogenous teams, diverse teams outperform and are smarter because they focus more on facts, process those facts more carefully by putting more effort towards reaching consensus and they are more innovative.
Third, diverse teams create a self-perpetuating environment that attracts diverse, talented people. The reverse, unfortunately, is also true. Whenever I’m approached by companies for insight on their diversity initiatives, the first thing I do is check their management team on their website. Put simply, if your entire management team is devoid of diversity and looks homogenous, you’re going to encounter difficulties recruiting diverse talent as they won’t see any room for growth or a sense of belonging at your organization.
Here are my three tips for investing in women at work.
1. Aim for diversity (at all levels and in all departments)
It’s important to ensure diversity is present in your C-suite, the inner circle that makes the organization’s key decisions.
When organizations are looking for gender diversity, they often find it in roles that have historically had more female representation. Those roles are few and far between and don’t fully encompass the key officer roles in an organization.
At Arcellx, 40 percent of our C-suite are women, and 70 percent of it is diverse, with different ethnic groups represented. Additionally, 81 percent of our team members in life sciences and technical roles are women.
To make progress, we need to strive for having women represented in every key role, not just roles that have typically had more female representation, such as HR. It’s less common to find a female general counsel, chief technical officer or equal representation in technical roles. Striving for representation in these key roles is again important both from a culture and performance perspective. And having more diversity at the leadership level helps drive diversity at all levels of the company. So when recruiting, it’s important to keep a position open until you’ve interviewed a diverse pool of candidates. When you impart this need to recruiters, who are typically the first filter when it comes to eligible candidates, you’re spreading the word that diversity matters.
McKinsey research shows that, while women enter the workforce in similar numbers as men, they are promoted to managerial positions at a much lower rate. This is known as the “broken rung” phenomenon.
That broken rung is often the first promotion to manager, so it’s important to holistically evaluate every potential candidate for promotion rather than relying primarily on personal impressions. Looking at slates of candidates at each promotion level – their responsibilities, performance and growth potential – and making sure you’re not overlooking someone because of familiarity or unconscious bias is fundamental to overcoming the broken rung phenomenon.
Education is key in combating unconscious bias and it’s important to do this in an engaging way. There are a number of ways to create safe spaces where people feel comfortable sharing or listening openly in the spirit of raising awareness and learning. Invite facilitators, experts or team members who are passionate about the topic to talk about it. Executive sponsorship that supports and mentors women is another important way to demonstrate that you’re serious about creating an inclusive culture. Culture is always a reflection of people decisions. As mentioned earlier, ensuring hiring and promotions reward the best performers and that diversity exists at all levels of the organization are critical drivers to advancing gender equity.
2. Provide flexibility (where it’s needed)
The COVID-19 pandemic made remote work possible but, now that many of us are back in the office, juggling family and work responsibilities can be more difficult, especially for working mothers.
As a biotech startup, remote work isn’t really an option for the majority of our team. And as a company in hyper-growth mode and constantly hiring new people, it’s difficult to develop and integrate new hires if they’re not on-site. This is particularly true since, as a startup, our biggest asset is our people. Their ability to stay agile and spark innovation, often through personal connections and conversations, is key to our success.
Having said that, we are mindful to offer flexibility where it’s needed, as we know it supports gender equity. For example, reports show that, on average, women spend more time caregiving than men.
Flexibility increases employees’ ability to be present with their families and share in caregiving.
That could mean dropping off or picking up your kids from school, like some of my team members and I do, or working one day a week from home for those who have a long commute. Whether it’s caring for children or parents, or pursuing life outside of work, having flexibility helps us attract and retain the best talent. It also ensures we’re not limiting the potential of exceptional people due to personal circumstances that can be managed with company support.
Many of our team members are working mothers. And statistics show that, no matter how much success they achieve in their professional lives, their responsibilities at home often don’t change, especially in a post-pandemic world where interruptions at home and at school are more frequent.
To support our working parents, in addition to flexibility, we offer fully covered comprehensive health care for the whole family, as well as six months’ paid maternity leave, two months’ paid paternity leave and reproductive assistance.
3. Create visibility for women
Promoting a culture of recognition and exposure is key to amplifying women’s voices.
At Arcellx, we highlight our women leaders’ achievements and include them in important events reflective of their meaningful roles. That includes interactions with our investors and board members, which not only raises their visibility but prepares them for increased responsibility over their careers. Externally, we offer them opportunities on speaking panels and support their professional development by investing in professional coaching, private membership networks or board preparation programs.
Giving credit where credit is due is also critical.
At Arcellx, we recently concluded a truly transformative deal for the company, which was primarily led by our Chief Business Officer Aileen Fernandes and our General Counsel Maryam Abdul-Kareem.
It was important to me to highlight their leadership when I shared the news publicly as well as to our board because they deserve recognition for their incredible achievement. I’ve observed elsewhere that, while sometimes a CEO doesn’t necessarily take credit for an achievement, they don’t credit anyone either, so people simply assume they were primarily responsible.
It’s so important to give credit to the people who are working hard for your organization’s greater success. And with men dominating executive and CEO roles, it’s our responsibility to invest in our female leaders. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also good business.