As the largest coalition of women in the workplace, Ellevate operates with a commitment to create equal access to opportunity and transform the business world so it better reflects our society. After a tumultuous year that saw millions of women leave the U.S. workforce — by choice, through layoffs, or due to other circumstances — Ellevate’s mission has gained even more importance and urgency.

“The easiest way to think of Ellevate is as an ecosystem of women in the workplace who are creating support to change their lives, to change where they work, and to change the world,” says CEO Kristy Wallace. “We’ve seen that so many women have left the workforce, intentionally or not, over the past year. And the number one piece of advice for anybody who is thinking about returning to work at some point is to continue to build connections, to get excited about your skills and your attributes, and to feel a little bit less alone. Know that there’s no one way to succeed; there’s no one way to show up.”

Wallace says it’s crucial for women to make the space and time to build relationships and create support networks — both a large network that helps open doors and a more personal network of people who can discuss difficult topics and serve as a personal board of advisors. “Relationships matter — they open doors. A big thing is just knowing you’re not alone,” Wallace says. “We work so hard, but we’re inundated with messages about how you have to act like a man, show up like a man. I’ve had reviews where my boss told me to have a thicker skin. It can be discouraging and overwhelming not seeing people who look like you at the top.”

Ellevate looks to harness the power of its community of 250,000 women to build those connections and support through local communities based on geography; virtual programs focused on career stages; online peer mentoring; a weeklong Mobilize Women virtual event; and fellowships for women who traditionally have been underrepresented in the workplace. Recently I spoke with Wallace as part of my research on purpose-driven companies to learn more about Ellevate’s programming and stakeholder-driven work as a Certified B Corporation. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Chris Marquis: With all the economic ripple effects of the pandemic, working women were most affected by layoffs in industries like hospitality where women hold a majority of jobs, or because they had to take on child care duties that limited their ability to work. There are now nearly 2 million fewer women in the U.S. workplace, and it likely will take years to recover that lost ground. While more companies may allow remote work or more flexible schedules, what issues do you see for women or other caregivers in the workplace?

Kristy Wallace: I love the idea of flexibility and remote work. It not only can support diversity and hiring as you look across the world, but also can create an environment where people are set up to succeed, depending on their situations. I say that as a mom of three who was homeschooling during the pandemic and am still unclear what school will be like come the fall. Our employees carry a heavy burden of not knowing what fall will look like, and they may be trying to plan for the future of going back to work plus caregiving — it’s a lot.

I encourage companies to be very intentional about what it looks like when you go back. You have some employees who are working remotely; you have some who are in the office. What about those side conversations in the kitchen, at the water cooler — when networking and building relationships happen? Who’s left out of that networking? Who’s left out of that relationship building? Companies should consider how to intentionally foster those conversations, particularly for those who are remote, to ensure that they’re also tapping into the power of building connections within the workplace. We know that that translates to career progress.

Marquis: What suggestions do you have for businesses to be more effective in supporting women, families, and other caregivers in the workplace?

Wallace: We work with a number of companies that are tapping into our programming and resources kind of as a plug-and-play to ensure that they’re supporting the women in the workplace. As we look toward the future of work and where we go from here, one step is acknowledging working caregivers — women, men, those caring for people with disabilities. It’s important to consider and understand how to best support working caregivers in the workplace and create policies, as we move forward with more flex work, to ensure we’re not creating more divide between who is working from home and who is coming into the office. This includes providing paid leave and being intentional about your policies to ensure you don’t create more inequities.

Then companies also really need to delve deeper into the intersection of identities. It’s easy to put things into a gendered silo and say, ‘We’re going to support all the women in our workplace.’  The reality is that the experience for a Black woman is very different from the experience for an Asian woman. So thinking through the different layers of identity within our workplace and creating policies and structure, support and systems, that truly do support the spectrum of identity and how people show up in the workplace.

Companies also need to ensure that this becomes part of their values and entire business model, not just from the top down. This can include tying executive compensation to hitting DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) goals but also creating the conversations, metrics, training, and support at each level within your company to ensure that your managers are not coming with bias, and are managing their teams so that everyone has an equal chance to succeed. As the numbers change, that will create more diversity at every level of the business.

If we’re really looking at how to better support working caregivers, one of those policies is paid leave. About a year and a half ago the federal government offered paid leave to federal employees, but how does that translate to all workers? And how can we make that standard — as it should be. To advocate for changes like this we became one of the founding companies for the new Time’s Up initiative advocating for safe, equitable workplaces. Ellevate is among the 200 companies that are the founding members.

Marquis: In terms of equity, what programming does Ellevate offer to support different groups of women, to support women of all identities?

Wallace: One thing we do is create a safe space for black women in our community, for AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) women, and others to come together and support one another. So they can talk about those shared experiences, what they are navigating during this time in the workplace, in the world, and how to best support one another without shared understanding.

The second thing we do is we look at everyone, because everyone in our community has some degree of privilege, to identify ways we can show up for others. How are we arming you with the tools and resources to be an active advocate for somebody else? We do that through creating spaces for conversations on being an active ally and advocate.

We also create an intersection of spaces for awareness-building conversation so we can build our understanding of what our colleagues and our peers are going through, and how we can take that understanding to do more. We acknowledge the times we live in, we acknowledge the situations being faced by those in our community, and we determine how we best use that awareness to take action.

Marquis: How has B Corp Certification affected your business?

Wallace: We very much believe in what B Corps stand for, and the certification process has been valuable. As part of that process, we learned a framework for understanding where we were doing good and where we weren’t. If you look across everything from governance to workers to environment and beyond, there were certainly areas like environment that we weren’t thinking that much about. So going through the B Impact Assessment process gave us a whole laundry list of recommendations where we could improve.

The first year we were certified, our score was like 83 or 84. When we recertified three years later, we went up to a score of 115 and we also doubled the business revenues during that time. That shows that with a framework of actionable recommendations, you can still grow your business and you can still be successful and hit those goals. And I think that they’re incredibly complementary because the better we did in our business— where we centered on who we are helping, how we’re helping, how we are creating a company that matters to our employees — the better we were as a business, and the more we were in tune with how we solve the problems for our customers and the more passionate we were about that.

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