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Equity at Work: How senior leaders can set the stage for inclusive workplaces

In the last year and a half, women have stepped up as people-focused leaders and drivers of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet their critical work is going unrecognized. In this candid discussion, Lean In co-founder Sheryl Sandberg and President and co-CEO of Ariel Investments Mellody Hobson sit down with Momentive CEO Zander Lurie to discuss the current state of gender equality in corporate America, based on the latest research - including the 2021 Women in the Workplace report.

Watch the session from Lean In and Momentive’s Equity at Work event on demand to hear how leaders can set the stage for culture change at work, help improve the day-to-day experiences of women of color, and recognize the women leaders who have risen to the moment.

4 key takeaways from the discussion

1. Leaders must treat inclusion like any other strategic company priority by setting goals and driving accountability.

According to Lean In’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, HR leaders say two things are critical to driving progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion: senior-level sponsorship and high employee engagement, making it crucial for senior leaders to fully and publicly support DEI efforts in order to signal that this work is important and ensure it is properly resourced as a strategic imperative. Hobson and Sandberg agree understanding why inclusion is a strategic priority is the first step in setting the stage for change.

2. Women are stepping up as leaders and companies need to recognize and reward their contributions.

Women in the Workplace data show that at all levels of management, women are showing up as better people managers and better champions of DEI than men. For example, women managers are 24 percent more likely to ensure workloads are manageable, 26 percent more likely to help employees navigate work/life balance, and 60 percent more likely to provide emotional support. And women senior leaders are twice as likely as men senior leaders to spend a substantial amount of time doing DEI work outside of their formal job responsibilities. Yet though companies are signaling strong commitment to employee wellbeing and DEI, few are formally recognizing this work. This hurts women and it hurts companies that are at risk of losing the women leaders driving progress.

3. Companies need to double down on advancing women of color.

Women in the Workplace pipeline data show women of color lose more ground than white women and men of the same race and ethnicity. 96 percent of companies are tracking representation by gender, but only 60 percent are looking at the intersection of gender and race.

“We’re sending visitors to space right now. We’re cracking the code on hard things. There’s no reason we can’t solve for a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

– Mellody Hobson

Companies need to double down on advancing women of color by setting goals and tracking representation explicitly for women of color. Senior leaders should also not underestimate the power of mentorship and sponsorship. Women are 24 percent less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders. And it’s often harder for women of color: 62 percent of women of color say lack of influential mentors or sponsors holds them back. This kind of support leads to new roles, more power, and higher incomes—all of which would help correct workplace inequality more broadly.

4. Companies need to create a culture of allyship.

Diversity of numbers is not enough of its own. Companies also need to create a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity—one in which women, and all employees, feel comfortable bringing their unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the table.

Yet despite greater focus on DEI, women of color face similar types and relative frequencies of microaggressions as they did two years ago. And while more white employees see themselves as allies to women of color, they are no more likely than last year to speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor women of color, or take other actions to advocate for them. This “allyship gap” points to the critical need for businesses to equip employees at all levels to challenge bias and show up as allies.

“Allyship means it is everyone’s responsibility to work on issues of DEI. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that the biases people face at work are called out. And it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that people understand the potential of not just hiring a diverse workforce but really leveraging a diverse workforce.”

– Sheryl Sandberg

Women in the Workplace data show that allyship training is a best practice that’s associated with steady improvement in diversity. And years of research shows that allies don’t just influence one person at a time. They inspire others to act as change agents too.