What You Can Do: Gender Sensitivity in the Workplace

What are the specific actions you can take to ensure that your workplace is on the right track toward gender sensitivity?

The first thing you can do is to explore the organization's reputation and history of diversity before you're hired. Read reviews of the company and if possible, talk with people who work there to get insight into how the company approaches the things that affect you the most. Once you've scheduled an interview, be sure to formulate and ask questions about the atmosphere and the company's specific approach to inclusion. If the interviewer is unable or unwilling to give you specific information on how mentor relationships are established and maintained, what percentage of women hold executive leadership positions, how the company handles professional networking, etc., you might want to postpone making a decision until you can get more information or you might want to reconsider your interest in the company. There is no right answer for how to make a choice since the decision is highly personal, but if the opportunity to move up into executive management is important to you, then make sure there is a clear path you can follow.

What if you already are working for a company and you want to find ways to help develop a more gender sensitive environment?

One of the best ways to begin is by talking with the Human Resources representatives and asking what steps the company currently is taking to improve gender sensitivity. If they're not actively seeking to improve gender issues in the workplace, you can ask about forming an employee task force. Often companies will welcome employee involvement in identifying areas where the company can improve. Identifying problems related to gender imbalance in the workplace or ways in which gender sensitive policies and procedures can help improve the work environment are good starting points for a task force.

If there is a distinct gender imbalance in your workplace, figuring out why is a good starting point. Companies that aren't hiring women for senior roles or promoting them once they've been hired need to look at the possible barriers that have been created and then find ways to remove them. This doesn't mean diluting requirements for employment or advancement but companies can think about including other types of experience in their job ads in order to attract a broader pool of possible candidates. If the company is having trouble finding enough qualified candidates, then one option might be to make connections with professional groups specifically focused on women in the field. Another could be exploring options for creating partnerships with colleges and universities that graduate a larger number of women in the field. Organizations also might consider partnering with local high schools and offering mentoring opportunities for students who show potential, and while this isn't the quick route to solving the problem of gender diversity in the workplace, it is one that can offer long range possibilities for mentoring and supporting women in a wide variety of professional fields. In other words, if companies are not getting the range of candidates they want, then they are not looking in the right places or implementing the right type of forward-thinking plans.

Employee resource groups also are an excellent way to ensure that information about policies and procedures gets disseminated and reaches everyone it affects. This type of group also can be involved in creating training programs and educational materials designed to help increase diversity in the workplace and raise awareness of issues that affect employees.

On an individual level, you can take steps to build a more inclusive workplace by welcoming new employees into your own professional circle. Additionally, they can form employee resource groups and welcome new employees by inviting them to join the discussion. Perhaps most importantly, employees can look out for one another and help each other improve their gender sensitivity IQ by discussing the issues that affect them in the workplace and having honest conversations about what works and what doesn't.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Gender Sensitivity Training course?

When shifting the lens and looking toward employers, there are a wide range of steps they can take to move toward a more equitable work environment. The first thing is to examine the upper level management in the company and if there is a distinct gender imbalance, then figure out why. Companies that aren't hiring women for senior roles should consider what barriers they've constructed that prevents women from filling them. That doesn't mean diluting requirements but employers should consider including other types of experience that broadens the pool of possible candidates. In conjunction with this, employers should look to expand the pool of job candidates by reaching out to professional groups, such as women engineers, and contacting employees--men and women--that left the firm to raise families to ask if they'd be interested in returning. If companies are not getting the range of candidates they want, then they are not looking in the right places.

Employers should make sure all employees have access to the same resources and opportunities. This means that if men are more likely to spend time with senior executives, work on the most important projects or meet the most valuable clients, they'll be more impressive candidates for promotion. Companies should have processes in place so all employees meet the same standards as they progress through their careers that help ensure they all get the same exposure to mentoring, training, and opportunities.

Employers should review policies and check to see if they are not only EEOC compliant but also being consistently enforced and revisit them to ensure that the policies also cover LGBTQ+ employees. They can review interview and hiring practices to ensure that they are bias free and evaluate job titles to ensure that they are gender neutral, for example, salesman equals sales person and/or professional, as well as ensuring that medical coverage applies equally to all employees and their families, and that it covers all necessary treatments and medications. They should also support employee resource groups and provide ample training regarding issues that affect employees.

Employers should consider expanding family leave policies to cover not just childbirth but also offer paid leave for immediate family care, adoption, and/or partners. Offering flextime or job-sharing opportunities also can be a gender-neutral benefit that will help balance the workload for parents and employees who are child free. Additionally, employers should work to close the pay gap by eliminating bias in the interview and hiring process. Companies that are serious about paying men and women the same wages shouldn't ask candidates what they were paid at their last job. Instead, every position should have a pay range with the allowance for exceptions for special cases. Employers also should audit their payroll and increase pay for women who have been short-changed.

However, while it's important to work actively to implement changes, it's equally important to remember not to assume that everyone already understands what needs to be done. Some people might label this as "common sense." The process of developing a deeper understanding of gender issues in the workplace can take time and is a process of constant learning and re-evaluation in light of what is learned. What's obvious to one person is not always obvious to another, so it's important to teach people and then hold them accountable for what they've learned.

There are thousands of things that can be interpreted as a sign of a lack of awareness when it comes to gender sensitivity but the point is not to become paralyzed. Instead, recognize that simply ignoring the problem will not make it go away and that, in fact, for some individuals, ignoring the problem often makes it worse.

Gender sensitivity is not the result of good intentions. You can't say that your heart is in the right place and do nothing to change your behavior. If you are in a position of power by virtue of your race, class, sexual orientation, gender or ability, then it is your duty to think about how your actions affect those around you. Keep in mind that intersectionality makes our identities complex, even those who seem to have the most power. The key is to examine your privileges and then figure out how you can use them to lift others up with you.

Gender sensitivity is not the result of a formula or strategy and there's no quick fix for the inequality that many people still face. Confronting the inequalities in our workplaces and coming up with solutions to level the playing field requires lifelong soul searching, self-reflection, active learning, a willingness to forgive yourself when you make mistakes, and a commitment to making sure you don't repeat them. Much like Martin in the opening example of this lesson, you can't know what you don't know until you know it, but once you do, it's your job to ensure that you do better.

This matters because gender sensitivity is not something that is important for just some people. The reality is that gender equality is good for all people because it raises the standard of treatment and behavior in the workplace and it ensures that everyone is being treated with dignity and respect. This means that it is necessary to distinguish between equal opportunity and sameness; we can't ignore differences and treat everyone the "same." Instead, we must establish a foundation for policy and practice and then evaluate situations on an individual basis. This doesn't mean throwing out the rulebook. This means being flexible in the application of the rules and finding ways to meet different needs within the scope of what needs to get done. For example, parents who have children often need more flexible schedules that will allow them to take kids to the doctor or pick them up from school during the workday. When the traditional nine-to-five workday doesn't meet the needs of an employee, a flexible solution might solve the problem. The point is to think differently about how to address the specific needs of employees while also ensuring they can do their job effectively.

Through perpetual learning, we increase our gender sensitivity and this is important because too often, we think of learning about things like gender sensitivity or diversity as a single learning experience rather than something that is ongoing. Building a true understanding of gender sensitivity in the workplace is a multilayered process that requires commitment, time, energy, and a willingness to engage in discussions about what we experience and how we feel about it. As difficult as it may be to engage in the process, it's also extraordinarily important and rewarding.