The Benefits of Inclusion

By: | November 22, 2017 • 5 min read
Carol Harnett is HRE’s Benefits columnist. She is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

The recent news stories about Harvey Weinstein and others who have been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women were liberating for me; not because I could join the millions of women (and some men) who became social-media voices for campaigns such as #MeToo, #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien and #QuellaVoltaChe. Instead, Harvey’s scandal gave me the opening for a topic I wanted to address for more than a year.

I’ve spent the better part of this year writing my columns around the theme of how to use benefits to attract and retain employees. But the greatest benefit I haven’t covered is a workplace that embraces diversity and inclusion in every sense of the phrase. Yes, D&I isn’t typically thought of as a benefit, but perhaps it should be?

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During the summer and fall of 2016, I spent time with undergraduate women majoring in STEM degree programs such as computer science and engineering. I came into this circle because my sister, Sue Harnett, co-founded a Durham, N.C.-based non-profit organization called Rewriting the Code.

RTC offers a year-round mentoring, education and internship program to college women and new graduates who want to work in technology-related jobs. The business need driving this mission is the more than 600,000 technology positions that went unfilled last year in the U.S. There are several reasons why this happened, including the fact that only 59,000 computer-science majors graduated from U.S. universities in 2015. There potentially would have been more CS graduates, however. Despite a 50/50 gender balance in the introductory courses, only 18 percent of graduates were women. And, in the first 10 years of their careers, 41 percent of women leave technology-related roles compared to only 17 percent of men.

When college and early-career-stage women were asked why they changed their educational majors or left their technology roles, their answers were disturbing. They felt marginalized, dismissed and overlooked, and said they were sometimes harassed. I could argue that having your opinions and recommendations dismissed is its own form of harassment. At minimum, it is exclusionary.

When I first met with these women, my initial reaction was to share the tricks I learned from women who were farther ahead in their careers than me in how to avoid situations where harassment could occur — especially at work-related events and conferences. They included using the Irish goodbye and leaving work or events before midnight (because “nothing good happens after midnight”).

But I stopped myself and apologized to these women. My parents’ generation raised many of us in the spirit of believing people could do anything they wanted in life. As a woman who studied biological chemistry, mathematics, physiology and biophysics (and was sometimes the only female in my advanced classes), I made the incorrect assumption that things had only gotten better for the generations that came after me. Instead, I heard stories that were worse than most of what I experienced.

I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. In early November, Dr. Kevin Wayne, a computer-science professor at Princeton, listened to a panel of RTC fellows discuss their experiences.

“Before hearing this panel, I thought we were doing better with listening to women,” Wayne said. “But the stories I am hearing right now from these women are heartbreaking. We all have to do better.” So my question for myself and HR executives is: How can we do better? How can we make demonstrable improvement in diversity and inclusion?

I spent the last month speaking with over a dozen HR and diversity and inclusion leaders about gender inclusion and workplace harassment. This issue was top of mind for everyone. Their recommendations for next steps were surprisingly consistent and often presented in the same order. For the purpose of this column, I’m limiting the strategies to gender issues, but the bulk of what follows applies to all employees who are not in a majority.

First and foremost, HR leaders (all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of repercussion) said: We have to get our own house in order. Each woman I interviewed shared her own story of workplace harassment and exclusion. Several related that work-related meetings and conferences were often places where harassment began.

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