When you know better, you do better, so the saying goes. For Brocade, a Silicon Valley-based high-tech company, the knowing came in the form of a trust survey the organization conducted in 2009 as part of its participation in the Great Place to Work Institute surveys. That trust index survey revealed that women ranked Brocade lower than their male counterparts in 95% of categories. And even though Brocade ranked high overall - achieving a spot on the nation's Great Place to Work list in 2009 - CEO Mike Klayko wanted to dig deeper into what was going on.

"We could've said, 'Okay, that's fine. We made the list; let's call it a day,'" says Pam Goncalves, CEO program director for Brocade. "But when you have a trend like that it's something you really want to focus on."

Spurred on by Klayko, Goncalves and her team set out to find out what was really going on with Brocade's female employees. While the trust index survey data is good, "it doesn't necessarily give you the color you need to find out: Number one, is there an issue? And - number two - if there is, what is it and is there more than one issue?" says Goncalves.

Focusing on the areas in the trust index survey where there were the widest gaps between men's and women's responses, Brocade went back to its female employees with another survey that asked more probing questions. This second survey also asked the women to compare Brocade to their previous employer.

"We thought we'd find out a lot of good data that way because there is a tendency in the high-tech world to say, 'Oh well, that's just the way high tech is. More men go into high tech than women, so of course it feels different than, say, a health care company or a financial services company [where you might find more women],'" says Goncalves.

Along with the survey, Goncalves organized a series of focus groups moderated by a third-party facilitator. The goal of the focus groups was to "get that interaction and understand from women in multiple parts of the organization what their experience was at Brocade," explains Goncalves. "So, for example, I have an extremely positive experience, but that may not be the same for every woman working here. So, I need to get out of my cube and go talk to women in different departments."

Third, the company got more serious about tracking its own demographics, beyond what was captured in the Great Places to Work survey. Demographics such as the percentage of women who work at Brocade, the percentage of women in management, the percentage of women by grade level, the percentage of women among new hires and the percentage of women by function started being tracked more rigorously.

All the data was compiled into a report Goncalves presented to Brocade's entire executive team. "They were encouraged by a lot of the feedback the women gave saying they really liked working at Brocade and they appreciated the fact we were running this survey and running a project to find out more," says Goncalves. "The women gave us a lot of feedback on how we can make this an even better place to work, regardless of gender. That was a big 'aha' [moment]. They weren't just asking, 'Can you do this for me as a woman?' but [also asking], 'Can you do this for all employees?'"

 

Going for the WIN

Next came the doing. With all that data in hand and a better handle on its own demographics, Brocade launched its Women in Networking initiative with the explicit mission of improving "the employee experience for all Brocadians and to promote and develop women in the workplace, especially in technology-related fields."

A WIN council - comprised of 21 employees from all parts of Brocade - develops programming in four streams: networking opportunities, training and career development, extraordinary services, and community and awareness. The majority of WIN's funding comes from the CEO's office. Activities and events WIN has launched so far include: speaker series, coffee talks with senior executives, an author series, webinars, mentoring programs, partnerships with the company's wellness committee, employee surveys, involvement in community events such as a breast cancer walk and a Silicon Valley leadership group summit for girls.

WIN has more than 800 members, 43% of whom are men, and now has chapters in San Jose, Calif.; Broomfield, Colo.; Plymouth, Minn.; and Bangalore, India. While it might seem odd to launch a networking group aimed at women and open it up to men, Goncalves believes that by making the workplace better for women, all employees benefit.

"If you are a people manager at Brocade, you're not just going to have one gender reporting in to you," she says. "So I think it's critical to understand what the employee experience is like for both genders. A lot of times you can't do that if you're sending your employee, who's a woman, off to a mentorship program or networking event but you never really hear firsthand what some of the issues are."

Also, she continues, "when we look at where women have done well professionally, it's usually because of a sponsorship within the company and a lot of times that sponsor is a male. So, we didn't want to waste time. If there were different things that were working out there, we were willing to try. And we think it's working."

One of the most successful events WIN has sponsored is its series of coffee talks - casual interviews with executives. Goncalves says quite a few men attend those events. "It's almost as if they're really curious to know but were either afraid to ask or felt uncomfortable asking," she says. "But everybody just takes a deep breath, relaxes and [says] 'I'm going to relate to you human to human, not from male to female or female to male.' They're really valuable interactions."

 

Lessons learned

When Brocade launched the focus groups, it wanted different functions - including HR - and job levels represented. "We noticed that when we had someone from the HR department attend a particular focus group that the discussion was not as open," says Goncalves. "I think there was a concern that maybe [employees were thinking], 'What I'm sharing here, is that going to constitute a follow up from HR? Or is that going to go in my file somewhere?' That would not have happened, but that feeling was there." Next time around, Goncalves says she'd consider having a separate focus group for HR staff to eliminate that perception among other employees.

In addition, she says it's important for companies - if they really do want to learn more about what's going on within their ranks - to craft a survey that asks the right questions. Goncalves and one of her colleagues ended up rewriting the survey because "we wanted to ask real questions and get real answers, and we think we did ... I think the vendor was trying to persuade us to take the easy way and that's not Brocade," she says. "We wanted to find out what's really going on."

Following the launch of WIN, Brocade hired for a position within the HR department that focuses on diversity and inclusion. The company is currently looking at what it can do for other demographics, including recruiting and training for veterans.

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