Want to Spice Up Innovation? Solve Your Gender Diversity Gap

diversityIt’s said that variety is the spice of life. The way I see it, for business, it is diversity in the workforce that brings rich flavor to an organization. Unfortunately, gender discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, may get in the way and leave a business dull and bland. It’s time for leaders to stop rationalizing and focus on action that can drive change. We need to accept and celebrate that men and women are inherently equal while bringing different perspectives to the table. Fresh viewpoints can shake organizations loose of stagnant thinking, thus helping drive toward new and exciting thinking.

In many ways, lack of workforce diversity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether it is due to women taking time off to raise children, the lack of opportunity in different functions, or general bias, dynamics exist that create an imbalance. I was struck by insights from a Pew Research Center survey, which showed that women were twice as likely as men to say there was discrimination in the workforce. Equal pay for equal performance plays a big role in that perspective with one-in-four employed women saying they have earned less than a man doing the same job while just 5 percent of men said the same.

This trend disturbs me as I think about it as the CEO of a public company as well as in my role as a father of two bright and accomplished daughters and husband to my tremendously smart and capable wife.

It also disturbs me because I believe that diversity is a must to drive innovation. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review found a statistically significant relationship between diversity and innovation. The innovative companies are those with fresher product portfolios, and, according to this study, turn out to be more profitable. This serves as a proof point for the need of a robust and proactive diversity and inclusion plan. A diverse culture can help guard against group think, increase the scale of new insights and identify the right employees who can tackle a company’s most pressing problems.

To create change, the process must start at the top. At Ritchie Bros., we aspire to create a workforce with diversity of people and diversity of thought, thus creating exponential innovation for our customers and employees around the world. With this in mind, we have greatly enhanced gender diversity in recent years, especially considering that we are in the business of heavy equipment serving the construction, agriculture and transportation sectors, which have historically been male dominated. Since I took over as CEO, we’ve added women to key leadership roles including our CFO, CITO and SVP of Marketing. Today, nearly 21 percent of our directors and VP levels are female (it used to be 7 percent). It becomes easier to drive gender diversity when we have women in a broad set of senior management roles and leadership positions.

But the work doesn’t stop there, it must cascade and infiltrate the organization far and wide. Here are just some of the ways executives can take on this challenge of gender diversity and better season their workforce blend:

  • It starts with working to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias; we need to create a workplace environment where it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman and where opportunity and compensation are truly based on performance, potential, nature of the job and market conditions. Having more of a team-based framework can help create and foster a culture of inclusion designed to empower people, spur collaboration and inspire innovation.
  • Human Resources has a vital role as the conscience of the organization, the check and balance to ensure that men and women have opportunities because of skill and performance, not gender. At Ritchie Bros., our human resources leaders have an important role in calibrating this to ensure internal equity across the entire organization.
  • After looking inside, also drive career awareness externally in ways that align with diversity initiatives. Create programs and targets for application volume in different roles across the organization and design the interview process to identify and select cognitively diverse candidates. Then, implement score cards to track and monitor the results of your efforts.
  • Remember that responsibility goes beyond HR and senior management. For executive levels, the Compensation Committee of the board should ensure there is no negative gender bias within senior executive levels. We are blessed at Ritchie Bros with an outstanding board chair and Compensation Committee chair, both women, to help drive this standard.
  • Periodically, conduct employee surveys by functional area and analyze compensation at various levels so there is good hygiene and regimen in respect to the makeup of departments, leadership roles and gender pay parity. Those baseline metrics help us cross reference to ensure the organization is trending in the right direction or that progress hasn’t gone off kilter.
  • Create and foster safe places for men and women to have real, authentic conversations about gender diversity or differences in the work force. Be it professional development, career or whole-life planning or other engagement platforms that can help teams, uncover where bias may be lurking and how to dismantle it. At Ritchie Bros. we’ve sponsored various leadership development initiatives to all female employees aspiring to leadership roles and engaged our high potential women talent to attend leadership trainings and conferences to support their career goals.
  • Organizations also must encourage and foster opportunities for women to break into functional areas that lack gender diversity by enacting sponsorship programs directed at individuals who represent different thinking styles. At Ritchie Bros. we find female employees congregating in certain sectors where there aren’t clear paths for growth. We are creating alternate paths for people to shine on their own merit and be compensated accordingly.
  • Senior female leaders must celebrate each other, become mentors to both men and women via internal company programs and external programs; and women must be a role model to all in the organization. It is very important for female leaders to be authentic and comfortable with who they really are…being authentic is a great leadership trait whether you are female or male.

Leaders cannot look at the gender diversity or pay gap issue in isolation. Robust, proactive diversity and inclusion programs can pave the way for a culture of innovation and create opportunity for all. Having a commitment to providing an environment where all employees are treated with fairness and respect and have equal access to opportunities for advancement based on merit, skills and aptitude is the path forward. It starts at the top, but it must cascade, with consistency, throughout the organization to stir the pot and create a flavorful stew that is the catalyst for long-term change.

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Ravi Saligram
Ravi Saligram is CEO and director of the board of Ritchie Bros. Prior to joining Ritchie Bros., Saligram was CEO, President and a member of the board of directors of OfficeMax Incorporated, (2010 – 2013), an omnichannel provider of workplace products, services and solutions. He also served in executive management positions with ARAMARK Corporation, a global food services company.

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