Article

Empowering organizations to empower women: How can we #ChooseToChallenge this IWD?

For International Women’s Day on March 8th, the theme is #ChooseToChallenge, prompting both men and women around the world to call out gender bias and inequality when they see it.

By Wendy Johnstone, SVP & COO APAC, Zendesk

Published March 4, 2021
Last updated September 29, 2021

More conversation about gender equity is always a good thing on International Women’s Day—but what’s the risk of all the ‘noise’ drowning out real action and progress?

Unfortunately, every woman will have a story to tell about performative allyship when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. You know, a scenario whereby a business outwardly promotes a culture of inclusion and shouts about how it supports women, only for the real story to be quite different.

For International Women’s Day on March 8th, the theme is #ChooseToChallenge, prompting both men and women around the world to call out gender bias and inequality when they see it. It could not come at a more important time in Singapore, where I am based, as 2021 is declared “the year of celebrating SG women”, with a government review underway to bring about a nationwide mindset shift to how we value gender equality and women’s contribution to our society.

And because this year is all about challenging, I am going to do just that. Despite great progress that has been made in many companies all across the world, there is still a lot of work to be done—and a lot to challenge.

[Related read: What women leaders bring to contact centers]

Gender balance is a continual work in progress

The stark truth is that none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes (and our children probably won’t either). At least, that’s the finding from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, which found gender parity will likely take 99.5 years to reach across 107 countries.

Despite great progress that has been made in many companies all across the world, there is still a lot of work to be done—and a lot to challenge.

In terms of women in leadership roles, things are getting better in certain countries (France, Iceland, and Norway all have over 40 percent of their average board of directors made up of women, for example), but at lower career levels, women’s participation in the labour market has stalled and financial disparities are widening. The report highlights three main reasons for this: women are more widely represented in roles that are becoming automated; not enough women are working in roles with the highest wage growth; and the age-old issue of insufficient care infrastructure. And let’s not forget the under-representation in emerging roles. In cloud computing globally, just 12% of professionals are women—and it’s the same for engineering (15%) and data and AI (26%).

We all know that fixing these issues isn’t easy. Workforce strategies must make sure that women are fully equipped to take on the fastest-growing and better-paid roles, and diverse hiring and inclusive work cultures are also a must to combat our unconscious bias and create an environment where women can succeed.

[Related read: The power of women-built brand experiences]

Equity, not just equality, is how we challenge ‘the way things are’

While things may take time to shift at a national and international level, there are movements that can be made at an organizational one. This is why at Zendesk, we have a focus on gender equity, rather than equality—and there’s an important distinction there. While equality ensures each person is given the same resources and opportunities, equity is about recognizing that certain populations have different circumstances that may work against them. Equity focuses on reallocating resources so that everyone can reach that state of equality.

Workforce strategies must make sure that women are fully equipped to take on the fastest-growing and better-paid roles, and diverse hiring and inclusive work cultures are also a must to combat our unconscious bias and create an environment where women can succeed.

At Zendesk, we’re aware that the tech industry has an issue with representation, and although we have made great strides, there’s still work to be done. To date, we’ve implemented policies to strengthen inclusion in our talent pipelines, created safe spaces for employees to discuss sensitive issues, and been upfront about the potential bias and inequity in what we do, whether it’s recruitment, promotions, performance reviews, or anything else that may disadvantage women. We’ve got 6 employee resources groups aimed at DE&I, including Women at Zendesk and Women in Engineering, which celebrate women and create supportive environments from them to continue learning and growing. Covid-19 has also had a huge impact on women (I wrote about it, if you’re interested)—and while a crisis often presents opportunities, there’s a real risk to the progress towards equity and equality we’ve all made so far.

So, how can organizations do their part to challenge gender barriers and improve the outcome for women? How can we make sure we’re doing what actually needs to be done, rather than spending more time simply talking about it?

1. Address the distinct challenges openly and head on

At this point, if you’re not talking about where you’re falling flat as an organization, you’re already behind. Making a statement internally and externally about your commitment to advancing and supporting women (and adopting an intersectional approach to your diversity efforts) is the first step. Systemic barriers cannot be broken if they are not acknowledged. While some companies may balk at admitting they are behind the times, it’s only by doing this—and then setting goals and tracking outcomes to do with gender—that you will progress.

2. Make work sustainable, not just flexible

A sustainable workforce is one that prioritizes the very real challenges of women and ensures the policies and performance expectations set for them are still realistic. While flexibility is key to helping women unblur the lines between work and home, take a look at where you might need to reset goals, change the scope of certain projects, or extend deadlines in the wake of Covid-19. For example, since September 2020, Zendesk employees have had 10 days of Global Covid-19 Caregiver Leave available to use towards care for family members. When companies are understanding and supportive of the challenges women face, those women are less likely to step away or downsize their careers to make things work.

3. Focus on succession and the gender skills gap (especially in STEM)

An all-male, all white board or leadership bench does not cut it anymore, so you’ve got to ensure your pipeline is full, and attracting and developing female talent is a priority. Even though half of the college-educated labour workforce in the U.S. are women, just 25 percent are in leadership roles. And, in fact, the number of women in emerging roles mentioned earlier is actually decreasing over time—in the 1980s, women made up 37 percent of computer science grads, compared to 12 percent today. This is a hard problem to solve, but it can be helped by adjusting entry barriers for tech roles and focusing on skills, rather than qualifications. This is one way to achieve a more diverse pipeline and give yourself access to talent that might otherwise get ignored.

[Related read: How men can serve as allies for women in the workplace]

While everyone has great intentions, there’s no doubt that women fall behind from their very first step onto their career ladders. Uplifting women must be a business priority that prompts reviews of existing cultural norms, organizational models and policies. From these reviews, we have to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to invest in growing and promoting the women already working for us. Are we recruiting through new avenues? Are we actually teaching people about unconscious and implicit bias? Are we taking actions to reduce this bias during the hiring and promotion process?

There are a lot of big questions without simple answers. Change of this magnitude is difficult and does not happen overnight—and taking the first step can sometimes be the hardest. If we’re really going to #ChooseToChallenge, we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves, be honest, brave, and commit to making the change one step at a time. We can all make that choice today.

Set your team up for success

Do right by your customers — help your agents, admins and internal teams do their best work. Zendesk offers robust out-of-the-box tools that are quick to set up and easy to use.