Q & A

What's the business case for diversity?

Victoria L. Brescoll — February 2011

A range of often subtle biases around gender roles pervade the workplace. SOM's Victoria Brescoll discusses the impact these biases have on women and men, successful approaches to inclusivity, and the business case for making changes.

Victoria Brescoll, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale SOM, talked with Q8 about what happens when people break from gender-stereotypical roles in the workplace. To read that conversation visit "What do leaders need to understand about diversity?" Here she expands on some of the findings of her research and discusses important examples of making the business case for diversity.

Q: Given that your research has found biases around gender are hidden even to ourselves, will there be change as women are more present and prominent in businesses and political realms?

That's the question. We don't have longitudinal data going back 50 or 100 years. We know that stereotypes and attitudes towards women have evolved somewhat in the last 25 years from research documenting what people think women are like and should be like. But the changes aren't dramatic. Most of these biases are very subtle. They are not conscious. People believe that they don't hold the biases. I would say our views are changing with more women being represented at work and in politics because there's a wider range of women represented in more powerful roles. Other research has shown when there is one token figure they are usually seen as just an exception to the rule. The general belief about women or about who is suited for that job doesn't change. But as more women enter those roles, then people no longer cognitively view them as an exception, and they change their view or their schema of what the role requires or what women are like.

Q: There's a trend within businesses to work around teams, and to have flatter organizations. Does that play into women's strengths or perhaps into the stereotypes of what women's strengths are?

That's a great way of asking the question. There has been a lot of work on whether men and women have different leadership styles, so this is speaking to stereotypes. The answer is complex. Men and women will adapt their leadership styles to different situations. In a flatter organization or a team structure, you're not going to lead in an authoritarian way. Of course, you're going to be more democratic and participative. So the question of whether at baseline men and women actually do lead in a different way, is complicated. Potentially, yes, but given that situational factors do play such a huge role, it's more likely that both men and women will adapt to these different kinds of structures.

Q: You have looked at the consulting firm Deloitte. Could you describe their efforts around diversity as a case study?

In the early 1990s Deloitte realized that though they were recruiting equal numbers of women and men, which put them a little ahead of their competitors, the rate of women advancing to partner was about 10%. There was a naïve belief that it must just be because they are having families. But when Deloitte actually did some benchmarking, they found that that didn't account for why so many women were leaving. In fact, their peer accounting and consulting firms were doing better. The CEO really saw this as a problem, took responsibility, and instituted a number of specific changes tackling this problem. They figured out that women were being given assignments that weren't as important. Women ended up auditing not-for-profit clients as opposed to being on Microsoft. And people really made their mark at Deloitte by being on these big, important clients. Once Deloitte was aware it was happening, they were able to address it. And they addressed work-life balance issues. Among other things, they instituted a policy called 3-4-5. In the consulting world, you spend an entire week off-site at a client's office. It's really hard on people who have families because you're gone five or six days a week. Try raising a kid that way. Deloitte mandated, and this initially attracted a lot of resistance in the firm, that consultants spend three nights away, four days at a client's site, and the fifth, Friday, in the home office. It totally equalized the playing field. At first the worry was they were not going to be servicing clients as well. But they were doing an even a better job because they were touching base at the home office on Fridays. And men really liked this, too. It became a recruiting tool. You could imagine that if you are a man, you might feel like the need to be that much more tough-nosed and at the client's site as much as possible. But then this takes away this requirement of toughness and masculinity if the organization mandates just four days away. Now they are regularly listed among the top places to work.

Q: In addressing these biases, should we be looking for change within businesses or for policy changes?

My sense is that making the business case is one of the best and most effective ways to change these things. But I can think of one policy area that would make a big difference. Of all developed countries, the United States has among the most regressive work-family policies. The Family Medical Leave Act only covers organizations with more than 50 employees and allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. If you compare that to other developed nations, we don't look great. Most mandate some form of paid leave. Studies show that those policies increase the number of women who stay in jobs and stay with organizations. We're behind.

Q: How should leaders be thinking about and acting on diversity?

With regard to women, if I was heading up a firm or had my own business, I would look to the approach that Deloitte took, start with collecting data on the organization. It's an extremely important first step, because you could just assume that you know what's going on, but until you actually get in there and survey your own employees in an anonymous way, you can't really diagnose a problem effectively. The specific responses to the data really depends on the organization, but some overall guidelines apply: leadership from the top is essential, buy-in is essential, and accountability has to be in place.