Commentary: Companies benefit by developing more inclusive work environments

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I have a confession to make. In the last two years I have become inexcusably addicted to the AMC television series, "Mad Men." The show has inspired many interesting conversations among friends and colleagues, but some of the most interesting have been in regard to gender dynamics in the workplace. Watching this period drama set in a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency from our 2008 vantage point, we're struck just as often with gratitude for how different things are now as we are with regret that so much of what we see on the screen still resonates with us today.

On its surface, the office of "Mad Men" could be determined to be diverse from a gender perspective, since over half of the work force at the firm is female (although completely exclusive in regard to the absence of people of color, people with disabilities and openly gay and lesbian people). While women on the show are fairly represented in the work force by the numbers, we find that they are almost all confined to secretarial positions in the office and the creative and management positions are held nearly exclusively by white men.

This show provides us with an exquisite model to discuss the issue of diversity and how diversity does not just mean adding women or people of color to your work force by the numbers. True diversity in the workplace needs to reflect inclusion of equal opportunity for people of all genders, races, sexual orientations and physical abilities.

Ten years ago, the champions for workplace diversity were often gender and civil rights advocates, working off strong data but working exceedingly hard to convince a reluctant capital market that social equity was a corporate priority. Today, leading global corporations are competing to secure the title of leader in corporate diversity and inclusion by developing in-depth recruitment and retention programs to attract women and people of color to their work force, to their client lists and to upper management.

A Special Report
Exploring efforts to build a culture of inclusion that reflects our community.

How and what has motivated this change? Well, as the ad teams of "Mad Men" so often remind us, in order to serve the client and start the campaign, the first question you ask is, who is the audience? When developing corporate priorities, all companies must first articulate who is the market for its product or service? Who are its potential clients and customers? What work force must the company attract and retain to serve client needs? What does the global marketplace and work force look like?

Today, the answers to these questions point to the need for American companies to develop more inclusive and robust work environments, flexible and family-friendly work policies and structures, leadership labyrinths and new models for employees to develop nontraditional career paths.

Consider these market trends:

• Women will equal 60 percent of every college freshman class in the United States by 2010.

• The Department of Labor recently reported that women and people of color will represent 85 percent of the emerging national work force in the next decade.

• Female entrepreneurship is the fastest growing demographic of corporate ownership in our nation.

• In the next year, Latino buyers will spend more than $560 billion, African-American consumers $572 billion, and Asian-American consumers $253 billion in the United States alone.

• Fortune 100 companies with several women on their boards outperformed those with the least by 53 percent in regards to return on earnings, 42 percent more in regard to return on sales, and outperformed companies with the least women on their boards by 66 percent for return on investments. (As per Catalyst's "Bottom Line: Corporate Diversity and Corporate Performance" study 2008).

With market trends like these, it is clear why so many companies such as Sodexo, FedEx and Alcoa have built benchmarks for diversity into their corporate executive performance reviews and tied diversity performance to executive bonus packages. Likewise, why companies such as PNC, UPMC, Highmark and American Eagle Outfitters have recruited experienced executives to lead their diversity departments and invested significant resources in recruiting strong, smart and dynamic women and people of color to run major departments and core businesses within their corporate umbrellas.

As the number of women and people of color leading our local businesses, sitting in our corporate boardrooms, creating advertising copy and new product development increases, our region will be able to compete more effectively within a global and diverse marketplace for consumer dollars and a talented work force.

For companies looking to create a more inclusive workplace here are some strategies to get started:

• Present the business case for diversity initiatives to senior level management and the board.

• Involve women and people of color on planning teams working alongside "traditional" senior management.

• Benchmark your company's progress annually. Connect diversity goals to other business objectives and hold department heads accountable.

• Promote how diversity gains are improving your business.

• Review HR policies and practices to ensure that they allow flexibility to "dial up and dial down" at different stages of life and address "nontraditional" families.

• Provide ample leadership and professional development training for women and people of color, especially in areas related to personal career mapping and negotiation.

Heather Arnet is executive director, Women and Girls Foundation. She can be reached at .


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