9+ Things I Learned At The “Working Mother” Conference

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© 2014 Rachel Riley. Licensed under CC-BY.

© 2014 Rachel Riley. Licensed under CC-BY.

October is National Work and Family month, so I was happy to take a couple of days last week to attend Working Mother Media’s Work-Life Congress, an annual conference built around the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list. In addition to a gala awards dinner, the event featured a day and a half’s worth of substantive presentations and discussions on great-workplace-related topics.

Since many of the sessions were concurrent, and I’d unaccountably left my time turner at home, I could only sample a few, but I thought I’d share a somewhat random list of interesting takeaways:

  • Author and consultant Sally Helgesen talked about diversity, stressing that real inclusion generally happens only when it becomes a strategic business imperative. As just one example, she described the way IBM blossomed throughout much of its history with a culture of conformity—everyone wore white shirts, and a conformity of thinking was equally prized. But during the technological whirlwind of the 80s, the company began to fall behind, and by the early 90s it was in pretty bad shape—until new leadership (presumably in the form of Lou Gerstner) pointed out that a lack of diverse perspectives was barring the door to innovative ideas. Only when the company had made (and stuck to) a commitment to diversity did it experience a comeback.
  • Lucy English, Managing Director of Institutional Research for (Bright) Horizons Workforce Consulting, had a similar cautionary word to say about worshipping at the altar of company culture. Too strong a culture can be a barrier to inclusion, she noted, as people with different styles and backgrounds may not be hired or may feel excluded when they are. (English, who has doctorate in sociology, actually quibbled with the whole notion of “culture” as a way to describe the traditions and practices of a workplace. Don’t confuse culture with values, she advised—saying you have a “culture of inclusion” is really just a statement of your values; true culture encompasses much, much more.)
  • Helgesen was also one of several speakers who stressed the importance, when making the business case to senior leadership for diversity/inclusion, flexibility, or any other such employee program, of using data specific to your organization. All the external research and reports (are you listening, McKinsey?) mean nothing if company leaders can say—as they too often do—“oh, but that doesn’t apply to us.”
  • Christine Alex, of EY, made a few key points about gathering data via employee surveys: Don’t ask unless you have some assurance from the top that the company is ready to respond to what it hears. (To make the case without this assurance, use data you already have.) Make sure the data you’re collecting can be measured and applied with some consistency across the organization. And perhaps most important, pursue the right data. Ask yourself, “what will change if I have this information?”
  • The way Lynne Walker, an EVP at First Horizon National, customized the business case for her company’s leadership was by bringing the very same kinds of metrics, analyses, and reporting already used on the banking end of her business to the diversity end. The result, she says, is that she has driven more change in her role as leader of D&I than she ever could in her former banking roles.
  • In fact, tools borrowed from the business side are useful for all kinds of innovations on the human resources side. Companies like Cisco, LinkedIn and Mastercard, said Jeanne Meister, founder of Future Workplace, are staging the same kinds of “hackathons” in their HR departments that have become common in the world of product or service development, letting employees lead the way to innovative approaches to internal programs and services.
  • On a completely other note, here’s how to ensure men don’t take advantage of your parental leave and related programs, said Scott Behson, management professor and working-dad-blogger extraordinaire: present your programs to them in the same exact way you present them to women (with maybe just a change of pronouns). Men face different kinds of prejudices and expectations both at home and at work, and they’ll quickly grasp that the program isn’t really meant for them. (Behson related one anecdote about a company that ignored his advice, rolling out a presentation for fathers in which they’d simply searched and replaced “mom” with “dad”—resulting in one slide that talked about maintaining dadmentum.) Speaking to dads’ specific concerns will not only save you an embarrassment like that, it’ll get you a lot more buy-in and participation.
  • Lily Tang, co-founder and president of the Everest project, a study of how women are leading change and innovation in corporate America, discussed the group’s report, Eve of Change. (You can download it here.) The study, which examined what’s working now, found that women are leading change that is transformative, affecting not just systems and processes but individual and collective behavior; that they are embracing “smart risk” to drive change; that they are using humility (combined with confidence) as a new “power tool” for getting things done; that their style is collaboration rather than “command and control,” and that they use difference as a source of strength.
  • Jennifer Fraone, associate director of marketing and communications for Boston College Center for Work & Family, presented stats on today’s parents—some of them pretty surprising. For example, did you know that more women are having children now than a decade ago? It turns out that the percentage of women reaching 44 childless decreased from 1994 to 2014—especially among well-educated women. (Among those with MDs or PhDs the percentage went from 35% to 20%; among those with master’s degrees the drop was from about 29% to 22%.) This seems like good news to me, as it would seem to point to a greater acceptance of, and support for, professional women having families. Fraone also cited stats showing that companies are increasing the amount of parental leave offered, and, in another trend I find heartening, most new leave policies are gender-neutral.

Finally, I learned that companies on the Working Mother “100 Best Company” list continue to annihilate the competition when it comes to policies and programs. More on that in my next post…

Interested in being on next year’s Working Mother 100 Best list? Let me help you plan or write your application. Drop me a line at robin@robinhardman.com. (For some reason, my website isn’t linking directly into email, so just cut and paste my address into your email program, or click here to contact me through my website.)

 

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