Blogs & Comment

These are the workplace gender equity tactics that actually work

Leaders have many ways to advance women in their workforce, but choosing the right strategy can be difficult. Here are the best practices

Boardroom meeting

(Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/Getty)

There’s been a lot of talk about gender diversity in corporate Canada lately. Unfortunately, too much of it has been just that—talk. What can companies do when they decide to move from talking to acting? A lot has been written about the value of gender diversity in corporate Canada. There is evidence that diverse teams tend to do better on a range of metrics. And then there’s the moral argument: a lack of diversity suggests a historical pattern of injustice, and this implies an obligation to do what we can to rectify the situation.

Following up on our seven-step plan to improve gender diversity at any company, we decided to look at some of the most common individual practices that companies are implementing today. Our goal is to see which practices have some empirical evidence to back them up; that is, we want to ask which ones are evidence-based best practices. Such practices may have two different types of goals: to actively improve gender diversity (and in particular to increase the number of women in leadership roles), and to reduce underlying gender bias and discriminatory attitudes within the organizational culture. Here is what we found so far about the tools companies are using to pursue those goals.

Diversity Training

An oldie but a goodie (or is it?), this one is particularly tricky. Diversity training has been around since at least the early 90’s, and has been one of the most commonly-implemented diversity practices ever since. Diversity training includes variants such as Implicit Bias training, Anti-Bias training and sensitivity training, among others. Despite its popularity, some have argued that diversity training may not be effective. Some even argue that, in some cases, it can do more harm than good—if, for example, it engenders resentment rather than understanding. But evidence is mixed, and so most authors agree in the specifics of the situation are the main determinant of program success. Things like the specific content of the training, its length, whether training is voluntary or mandatory, and the constellation of other diversity practices implemented by the organization will likely determine the degree to which such training has a positive impact.

Employee Resource Groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are, well, just what they sound like: groups of employees that function as (you guessed it) a resource, for members of such groups but also for companies as a whole. ERGs are typically based upon the members’ personal characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation or generation/age-range. They can be started by employees, but often approved and even fostered by corporate management. In addition to functioning as support groups, ERGs may help employees gain access to a broader network, to mentors, to training programs, and so on. Relying on the fact that we tend to gravitate towards people similar to us, ERGs provide employees with the chance to connect with other members and feel better represented and engaged in the organization. On the other hand, ERGs also provide the organization with support for its Diversity and Inclusion strategies in various ways. An ESG may be a way for the company to tap a larger pool of candidates for leadership roles, to empower members of disadvantaged groups, to engage employees, and to gain a better understanding of customers’ needs and wants while developing better relationships with stakeholders in general. In the large literature devoted to ERGs, the vast majority of authors agree on the positive impact that ERGs have for both employees and the organization.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) are widespread across industries and come in many different forms—reduced working hours, telecommuting, flexi-time, job-sharing, you name it. Various strategies are adopted and tailored by companies looking to attract, retain, and engage talent, and of course, to foster diversity, especially gender diversity. As we discussed in our seven-step plan, a thoughtful approach to FWAs and family support is imperative if companies want to empower women. In this regard, FWAs help reducing the negative impact of the mid-career conflict often faced by women who are considering becoming mothers. Advancing in a professional career usually implies a trade-off between work and personal life, and the cost of this trade-off tends to be higher for women than for men. This is where FWAs could have a big impact. But as promising as FWAs are, several factors need to be considered if they are to be effective. Research shows that FWAs are powerful inclusion tools as long as there is support from leadership and especially from supervisors. FWAs also need to be available for everybody in the organization. Their details need to be negotiable, and FWA policies must be effectively communicated across the organization.

Sponsorship/Mentorship Programs

Almost every large company has some form of mentorship program. No so often, however, are these also sponsorship programs. And regardless how a company portrays it, sponsorship and mentorship are two different things and, as such, they have different impacts. To put it simply, a mentor is a more experienced and knowledgeable person who coaches and teaches his or her mentee. A sponsor, on the other hand, while they might indeed coach and teach, is also someone who uses their position and influence within an organization to advocate for his or her protégé’s success and professional growth.

Most of what we know about such programs strongly favors the implementation of mentorship and sponsorship programs. The evidence seems to be that they benefit everyone: the mentees/protégés, the mentors/sponsors, and the organization. However, these programs do not seem to benefit men and women equally. In their Harvard Business review analysis of why men still get more promotions than women, authors Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M Carter and Christine Silva noted that women tend to get more mentoring but less sponsorship than male counterparts. Furthermore, they pointed out that men’s sponsors tend to be in more senior roles than women’s, which implies the ability to help their protégés more. So, while mentorship and sponsorship seem promising, the way in which they are executed matters a lot. They way some authors describe the process, a mentor eventually becomes a sponsor at some point, perhaps after seeing the mentee’s potential, work ethic and values. If this is true, then something is preventing women’s mentors from making that leap and becoming sponsors. It wouldn’t be a surprise if gender bias had something to do with it.


Few practices aimed at fostering gender diversity have generated as much controversy as the establishment of quotas or, more broadly, affirmative action programs. There is research supporting arguments both for and against quotas, both practically and ethically. From a practical point of view, the implication is that successful implementation of quotas will rely on specific internal and external factors. Those who fear this practice argue that forcing corporate boards, for example, to include a set number or proportion of women could be perceived as unfair by men, creating friction. It may also put those women under a spotlight and leave them stigmatized. Critics also suggest that quotas may increase organizational cynicism and do little to help the deeply rooted issues of gender bias and discrimination. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that there are ways to offset these threats, and that the benefits of quotas actually outweigh any potential concern. In fact, one study published in HBR showed that quotas tend only to face resistance in those countries without them, and that in countries such as Norway the implementation of quotas generated a change in the narrative, in addition to a change in the way boards are formed and managed. Furthermore, several authors have argued that there is a threshold effect. When the quota in question is over 40%, the threat of women being stigmatized ends up being neutralized: it’s much harder to stigmatize half your board than it is to treat the sole woman as a token. Research from Australia also supports quotas as a way to achieve significant results and to seize the benefits of gender diversity in decision making. Although voluntary targets could generate a more effective cultural change, quotas can provide a framework to get things started.

Much more remains to be said, but those are some of the key practical steps available to companies.

As we keep reading and learning about best practices to foster gender diversity, we realize that there is no definitive answer. Many different combinations of steps can help. There can be many different ‘right answers,’ as long as there is a genuine intention on the part of leaders to make progress on the issue. At the end of the day, the degree to which these practices will help to create an inclusive culture will depend more on the people executing them than on the practices themselves. Without a full commitment from management and a genuine effort to eradicate gender bias and discrimination from the organization’s culture, no one practice or combination of practices will have the desire effect. Achieving gender equality in corporate Canada will take time, but with commitment and willingness to make things right, we will get there, sooner rather than later.

Martin Fabro is a graduate of the Ted Rogers MBA program at Ryerson University, and a Research Associate at the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre. Chris MacDonald teaches ethics and critical thinking at the Ted Rogers School of Management. He is Director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, and is founding co-editor of the Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics.