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Three essential steps for greater gender equity on your board

Picture it: The board is onboard.

They have been swayed by the strong “business case” you put forward based on what I laid out in the first article I wrote on gender equity on boards.  The board members now admire your tenacity in continuing your efforts to bring this issue forward based on my second article and fully grasp the immense value more women would bring to the board.

But now they’re wondering about next steps. Assuming your organization is starting from scratch, here are three essential initiatives that you can advise your C-suite or the board to do. (Bear in mind this is not by any means an exhaustive list but an initial one.)

1.    Implement a sponsorship program — it’s like mentoring but better!

Sponsorship is often confused as being mentoring by a different name. Think of sponsorship as “Mentoring 3.0.” It not only provides support for the protégé’s individual and professional growth, it goes further. A 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review noted “sponsorship as active support by someone appropriately placed in the organization who has significant influence on decision-making processes or structures and who is advocating for, protecting, and fighting for the career advancement of an individual.”

In the sponsorship programs I have had the privilege of designing, sponsorship is a commitment by a high-level individual in an organization to leverage their own status, power and reputation to ensure that the protégé is given opportunities for advancement. Sponsorship is based on the notion of using one’s power to provide the protégé with opportunities they would otherwise not have. This type of “vouching” has been going on informally for centuries. The difference is that, traditionally, and far too often, it didn’t involve women as protégés.

When implemented properly, it acts to propel the careers of women to the highest levels of an organization. Rather than exclude women from an organization’s influential networks, sponsorship is a tool to promote them there.  

2.    Ensure direct responsibility and accountability for implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives

When diversity and inclusion is practised as an ad hoc program and/or implemented by a volunteer committee, the outcomes are often modest at best. Pronounced cultural change for the organization can be difficult to achieve.

Most companies have acknowledged this and have retained a high-level chief diversity officer, or CDO, to oversee a sustainable and successful diversity and inclusion program, often with the aid of an external specialist consultancy to build processes that are specific to the company. Expertise and experience are essential.  

Simply assigning someone to work on D&I “off the side of their desk” does not result in a focused, conscious and successful program. Because of this, organizations as varied as engineering schools, unions, law firms, universities and the tech industry move toward real expertise, programs and systems that weave diversity and inclusion into their organizational DNA. In fact, as of 2012, 60 per cent of Fortune 500 companies had high-level diversity leadership positions including CDOs. A decade earlier, this was not a consideration.

3.    Establish unconscious bias educational programs and support for all staff and leadership

Underlying all of this is the essential need for unconscious bias training and priming your organization for cultural change. Moving toward a culture that values a diverse range of perspectives, lived experiences and voices in decision-making is essential. This, however, can be a struggle for many organizations.

In my two decades of doing diversity and inclusion training, I have found that those organizations that are well intentioned with regard to diversity and inclusion but fail to deal with the root causes for monolithic and/or exclusionary organizational cultures rarely get beyond gender or other equity on their websites.

While we can draft rules, mission statements and policies promoting diversity, it is essential to become aware of our own biases in almost everything we do, and then practise the tools to help us mitigate bias in our workplace. If you are human, then most of your actions are automatic and are based on your biases. To make matters more challenging, we often have internalized social, psychological and neurological barriers to both change and difference.

Time and time again, rules are undermined and grandiose mission statements are ignored in very subtle and nuanced ways. Those who see diversity and inclusion as unnecessary or as a threat may consciously and unconsciously look for facts to confirm this. Sometimes, there is backlash and the cultural change hoped for never materializes. Gender equity, including on boards, then remains elusive.

An essential change management tool is to prime all individuals within your workplace for diversity and inclusion. This fundamentally involves structured and comprehensive multi-level unconscious bias training and practising bias mitigation tools.  Some organizations have chosen to train exclusively the C-suite and, while this is essential, it may have a limited effect on gender or other equity and cultural change. If we want to change the culture of an organization as a whole, we have to ensure that training involves all those within the culture.

So now you are armed with the “why” and “how” gender equity on boards is essential to growing the bottom line and to corporate social responsibility initiatives. You also have some tools that can be developed and implemented toward not only greater gender equity on corporate, public sector, not-for-profit and NGO boards, but with regard to staffing at all levels the organization. The ball is now in your court.

Naveen Mehta is general counsel and director of Human Rights and Diversity at UFCW Canada. He is a sought-after global diversity and inclusion strategist, facilitator and speaker with CulturWorks | Growth Strategies. He is also a board member of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Corporate Policy, a member of Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusiveness, the Federation of Canadian Lawyers and North American regional diversity expert for the ILO. He can be reached at, and Twitter: @naveenpmehta.

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    Felicity Groome
    As expected, a great article that concisely provides us with three important ways to take the next steps. I appreciate the work.