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There's No Formula for Gender Diversity in the Workplace

Start that conversation today. Don’t wait until tomorrow when they’re on their way out.

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When our beloved late CEO, Dave Goldberg, asked me to join SurveyMonkey as the vice president of human resources, I reacted in a way I believe many women in my position are so inclined: I tried to talk him out of it.

“But I don’t have the right experience,” I explained.

Even though I’d spent more than 11 years in various HR leadership roles at Yahoo, I thought someone else would be better suited for the job because I’d never had full responsibility for an entire department.

“No. You’re perfect. I’m not going to take no for an answer,” he told me.

Four years later, I’m still grateful that Dave pushed me to realize my potential even when I balked at his initial offer. And his legacy here remains: Women make up 40 percent of our executive team, compared with the industry average of 24 percent.

There’s no set of numbers or benefits or actions companies can put into place to suddenly increase gender diversity across the company.

That’s not to say companies aren’t making an effort to hire more women. Many are doing a great job of taking on women who are just entering the workforce. The problem is women aren’t staying — or succeeding.

The real challenges are: 1) finding ways to retain female employees, and 2) creating an environment where they have the opportunity to advance into leadership positions.

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2015 Women in the Workplace study, women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline — with the biggest disparity in senior leadership positions.

Why does this shortage matter? Our president and chief technology officer, Selina Tobaccowala, knows that a diverse workforce means being equipped to truly understand and serve a diverse customer base.

But if you’re not moved by the value of differing perspectives, think about the effects of diversity on your bottom line: It has been shown that companies that are gender-diverse are 15 percent more likely to financially outperform their less-diverse peers.

So how do you attain gender diversity at every level in your organization? As someone who has had two children during my time at SurveyMonkey, and as someone who has been asked, time and time again, about the secret to retaining qualified women and hiring them into leadership positions, I have to confess: There’s no formula (really!).

It’s true. There’s no set of numbers or benefits or actions companies can put into place to suddenly increase gender diversity across the company.

Surround yourself with like-minded people, and this creates a ripple effect.

What it comes down to is this: Surround yourself with like-minded people, and this creates a ripple effect. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every organization. Company by company, CEO by CEO, leadership team by leadership team — this is where companies define their commitment to diversity, and this is where the change happens.

Gender diversity is not about hitting quotas. It’s about having advocates for women throughout your organization — and fostering an ongoing, honest dialogue about the limitations of the company (and how to make them better).

What does this mean in practice? In the McKinsey and Company study, 65 percent of women with children who said they didn’t want a leadership role cited their belief that they wouldn’t be able to balance family and work commitments.

So it’s not too surprising that when Google listened to their employees and modified their maternity leave policy, increasing it from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new moms left Google dropped by 50 percent.

But family obligations are definitely not the only barrier to entry for women in the workplace. The McKinsey study reveals that women are almost four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender. They’re also twice as likely to think their gender will make it more difficult for them to advance in the future.

That’s why it’s a good idea to open up multiple channels of communication for your female employees not only to let them voice preferences and concerns, but also to give them a space to exchange ideas and support one another — especially in areas where women are traditionally underrepresented, like engineering and tech ops teams.

Just as there’s no formula to gender diversity, there’s no real sense of finality. Like many other companies, we have a long way to go to hit gender diversity across teams. So we do our best to leverage both internal and external channels to effect change.

Recently, organizational culture and diversity expert Freada Kapor Klein spoke to our company about how hidden bias operates in tech culture — and how to mitigate those biases. We also make our female employees aware of Lean In circle opportunities, and have hosted various events aimed at empowering women in tech.

Outside of official events, our employees communicate over team chat about issues they face and ongoing diversity efforts. I also have regular check-ins with our female leadership who can be the boots on the ground, helping surface concerns or topics that may otherwise go unnoticed.

You need to hire people who are willing to make diversity, and in this case, gender diversity, a priority.

But fostering diversity goes beyond instituting family-friendly policies and opening up channels of communication. You need to hire people who are willing to make diversity, and in this case gender diversity, a priority. It also means making tough choices and sacrifices. Some of your most talented employees who bring value to your organization in many ways may need to be let go if they’re not acting in line with your company ethos.

Although my story has a happy ending, that’s not the case for many women who aren’t afforded the same opportunities to advance. In our case, we were so fortunate to have Dave, who understood the importance of differing perspectives. Even if that meant sometimes taking longer to work through a business question, the fact that the conversation started in the first place was a win.

Men and women in positions of power: The onus is on you to open up channels of communication with your employees and start the dialogue, even when the conversations are tough. Sometimes you’ll have to take a bit longer to hire the right person for the job, rather than the easy fit.

And if you really want to know the most effective way to promote qualified women within your company into leadership positions, here’s the No. 1 rule: Start that conversation today. Don’t wait until tomorrow when they’re on their way out.


Becky Cantieri has served as vice president of human resources at SurveyMonkey since 2011. Before joining SurveyMonkey, she served in various HR leadership roles at Yahoo for more than 11 years. Reach her @SurveyMonkey.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.