Over the course of her 22-year career at global consulting firm Ernst & Young, Karyn Twaronite, like employees everywhere, has gone through what she describes as "pivot points" - those times when she considered working somewhere else. She experienced them as a young tax adviser two years into her job, and again at five years and at 10 years. And each and every time, she's made the decision to stay.

"When I've looked at the balance sheet of what Ernst & Young has afforded me and what I've given Ernst & Young, it was completely fair," she says. "The firm was very progressive with me and my colleagues and I'm proud of the fact I could work here and be a working mom and have a professional career that's very stimulating."

Ernst & Young's progressive workplace policies, particularly with regards to women, have landed it among the top 10 on this year's 2012 Working Mother 100 Best Companies list. The list honors organizations for their flexible culture as well as their programs that support child care, workplace flexibility, women's advancement and paid family leave.

Twaronite, now Ernst & Young's Americas inclusiveness officer, has participated in many of her firm's programs, including its women's networks (which number 90 across the company), benefitted from mentoring and sponsorship opportunities within the organization and taken advantage of the company's flexible work arrangements.

And while Ernst & Young and other companies on the Working Mother list stand out as shining examples of the progress women have made in the workplace, Twaronite is the first to admit strides in gender equity haven't yet reached the boardroom.

"Our corporate governance team found that only 13% of the more than 5,000 corporate board seats for S&P 500 companies were occupied by women in 2002," she says. "Sadly, that number has only increased to 17% a decade later."

Ernst & Young has been working on gender equity and fairness since the 1990s. Initially, programs such as work-life balance, women's networks and mentoring "were effective and fine but it's evolved now to where it's no longer about fixing women, but about fixing the work environment."

Colleen O'Reilly, a senior partner and talent management leader for North America with Mercer, agrees that women's progression into leadership roles is "not all a women's problem. It's not all a function of the way women present themselves or women taking themselves out of the workforce [to have children]." However, it's not all an organizational problem, either. In most cases, it's a combination of both.

"Companies need to have things in place so women are aware if they are doing things that might be holding themselves back - whether it's presenting with confidence or being vocal about their ambition," she says. "Similarly on the organizational side, do you have tools that are valid and reliable and appropriately identifying, in a nondiscriminatory way, who is high potential?"

 

No clear strategy

Despite organizational aspirations to build leadership capability and achieve a diverse workforce, the majority (71%) of companies worldwide do not have a clearly defined strategy for developing women into leadership roles, according to the Women's Leadership Development Survey, conducted by Mercer.

When asked how well the organizational climate supports the development of women, 44% of respondents said their organizations support development to a moderate extent and 19% said to a great extent. U.S. companies showed a higher-than-average response, with 27% supporting the development of women to a great extent.

"A company should articulate what their philosophy is around leadership and leadership development. Period. Forget about whether we're talking about different groups that may be in a minority," says O'Neill. "What does leadership look like at the organization? How does one develop and what kind of accountabilities and experiences are related to that?"

In 2008, Ernst & Young started a program called Leadership Matters. All partners, senior managers and non-equity partners at the firm go through the program, which involves an individual self-assessment, followed by group sessions of about 50 employees taught by an academic. The point of the program, says Twaronite, is that "everyone has unconscious biases and it's openly acknowledging that that's okay but, here's how you approach it to be the best team leader you can be."

Additionally, every manager who reaches the five-year mark at Ernst & Young attends a session with Harvard academic and psychologist Dr. Mahzarin Banaji where they also address their unconscious biases.

For women specifically, Ernst & Young offers a program called Career Watch, which identifies high-potential women who've been with the company for approximately five to seven years. "We identify a sponsor for them and that sponsor makes sure they have the most robust work experiences so that their portfolio just grows and grows so that they are the most credible they can be when they're up for partner," Twaronite explains. As a result, "we have seen more women partners in our ranks."

Since implementing many of its diversity programs "our people engagement scores have gone up, our retention rates have gone up," says Twaronite. "We've also been able to close the gap as it relates to turnover rates and satisfaction rates between men and women." Additionally, one-third of the company's board is now women and 27% of its major divisions are led by women.

 

Lost issue

And while many companies in North America may articulate some kind of diversity goal, there is a question as to whether the gender issue has been swallowed up by a wider diversity movement.

"People don't think it's an issue anymore; they think we've grown beyond it," says Rania Stewart, senior product manager for performance and succession with Peoplefluent. "It's definitely still a problem but perhaps the bigger problem is that leaders, especially, don't realize the problem and definitely don't like the idea of doing women-only focused things."

She notes companies are moving away from women-specific language and more toward policies and programs that promote inclusivity and diversity overall. "What I haven't seen is whether that is working any better than calling it [gender issues] out specifically," she says.

O'Neil, meanwhile, wonders whether "in the language of diversity, has the gender issue gotten lost? There are so many opportunities and barriers that sometimes I think there's no clarity on issues related to women. And because of that, people will say, 'I hear a lot of rhetoric but exactly what do we believe? What are we trying to do?'"

For Twaronite, broadening the scope of diversity beyond gender doesn't mean "women are being left off the agenda or that they're not still a hot spot. ... by diversity, we mean the mix of talent. We also use the word 'inclusion.' That's how you leverage that mix of talent."

And leveraging that mix of talent is going to become increasingly important when the labor market improves. Companies that have a broad array of diversity and inclusion programs will have a competitive advantage, O'Neill believes.

 

 

Best practices

From babies in the office to discounted offsite child care, four of America's best companies to work for shared details of their child care and family benefits during a panel discussion at the 2012 Benefits Forum & Expo. Joining the discussion, moderated by Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of Benz communications, were: Kevin Rickfels, senior vice president with CHG Healthcare Services, a health care staffing company; Shirley Bullard, chief administrative officer and vice president of HR at The Ken Blanchard Companies, a leadership training company; Cathy Benton, chief human resources officer at law firm Alston & Bird LLP; and Shari Conoway, director, people, Southwest Airlines. Here's an excerpt from the conversation:

Benz: Let's talk about Shirley's company and one of the benefits that it offers that allows infants in the workplace.

Bullard: About 26 or 27 years ago, one of our partners had a baby. She wanted to come back to work right away but did not want to leave her baby at home or with someone she didn't know. So she went to the then-HR manager [and] we looked into regular child care and the cost was so prohibitive.

We did some research and thought, 'Why shouldn't she be able to bring her baby with her to the office if we have a plan for taking care of the infant?' So the organization bought the equipment - the crib, the pack-and-play, all those sorts of things. We like to ensure the mother or the father has a private office. If they don't, we like to move them to a location where they do. We also got the agreement of the people in the department that they would be okay with it and that if an issue did come up, there was a process to re-evaluate it. We also decided to only let the infants stay for six months because after that, they get kind of loud and more mobile.

It's been extremely successful and, as a result, I would say about 85% to 90% of the women and men who've brought their children to work are still with the company.

Benz: Child care and helping parents transition back to work and keeping them engaged after they've had children is a big issue. Cathy, you've also created a pretty unique child care program, at least in the legal field. Tell us about that.

Benton: About 10 years ago, we opened a child care center in Atlanta. We have more than 2,000 people in that office. It was something I had always wanted to do but it was cost-prohibitive. Then the Governor of Georgia changed significantly the tax credit for corporate-sponsored child care and so at that point, we approached our managing partner again and he said, 'Yes, why not?'

We were the first law firm to do this. We have a child care center with about 110 children. It's exclusively for Alston & Bird lawyers and staff. It's been incredible for our hiring and retention of our female lawyers, which has always been our biggest and hardest problem.

Rickfels: We're in a bit of a different situation. We're about 1,400 employees; our average age is about 32. We found a company, about half a mile away, that had a full center and it wasn't filled. We talked to them and asked them to provide us discounted child care close to the office.

Conoway: We have thousands of employees and are spread out across the country. There have been many requests [for day care] and lots of research done. Our headquarters are in Dallas. But the philosophy we've had from day one is if we can't do it for everyone, we're not going to just do it for the headquarters people. And so in lieu of having a specific child care [centre] for our employees, we give them the tools to go out and find great providers - referral tools, a lot of providers will give discounts to Southwest employees.

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