A diverse workforce ensures inclusivity and improves productivity

From gender equality to equality for all: How workplace policies shifted towards inclusivity and diversity

From gender equality to equality for all: How workplace policies shifted towards inclusivity and diversity

Back in the 1900s, employers preferred women workers aboard seasonal fishing schooners on the Newfoundland-Labrador route. Here’s the reason for this preference — employers realised that hiring women was “better than two men in many cases, and half the expense.”1

Though the reasons for bringing women into male-dominated workplaces may have been less-than-progressive, from there on, we saw a gradual change. As the number of women employees increased, they were able to band together and stand up for their right to better working conditions and equal pay. This sparked off an important movement towards inclusivity.

Office spaces started being seen as more diverse spaces overall, and not just a place meant for dominant male groups. This shift not only addressed intersectionality, but also created inclusive opportunities for various groups — people of different age groups, races, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities and special needs started becoming a bigger part of the workforce. Their voices, choices and needs started becoming more important than ever before.

When there is diversity, everybody wins. Companies with a diverse workforce are able to innovate better, come up with more creative solutions, and understand a wider section of their audience. Let’s see how organisations have used gender equality as the springboard to bringing about wider inclusivity and improve productivity, retention and results.

Workplace policies that move away from gender conformity

Up until recently, board members would almost always be older male executives, belonging to a dominant racial group and ‘corporate’ norms have so far been defined by such groups. For instance, women who want to succeed may be expected to act or dress a certain way — they cannot be ‘too feminine’ if they want to be taken seriously. At the same time, they may still need to adhere to certain gender roles — some Japanese firms faced a backlash last year for mandating women to wear high heels, while men could wear comfortable footwear. Other norms have eaten away into work-life balance, making it difficult for women to pursue a career and still bring up children or take time off for family emergencies. Needless to say, these hurdles cause many women to drop out of the workforce.

However, this has seen a change. Boards are looking for diversity rather than conformity, and value what women bring to the table. For instance, in Singapore, when the Singapore Institute of Directors (SID) organised a Corporate Governance Guide series in 2017, they called to have 20% of women directors on boards by 2020 — the 20-20 target.2

As a Singapore-headquartered workplace strategy and design firm, Space Matrix is committed to the 20-20 target and encourages diversity and equal access to opportunities. As a result, women comprise 42% percent of the workforce in our 15 offices across the world and 25% of our executive committee are women leaders. This far surpasses the goal set by SID, and is made possible because we’ve been empowering women employees at all levels.

At Space Matrix, 25% of our executive committee comprises women leaders.

To make real empowerment possible, organisations like us are building a culture that enables women to be their own authentic selves and support them through major life changes. For example, companies that offer great maternity benefits and flexible work options are more likely to retain women employees who have just become new mothers. A well-designed mothers’ room, affordable day-care facilities and technology that enable remote working are other strategies for employee retention. They ensure that women do not have to make unfair choices or behave exactly like their male predecessors — they can be women, mothers and leaders all at the same time.

Bringing opportunities to all

By building on the gender equality efforts of the past few decades, today’s conversations around workplace inclusion can now focus on other groups too. For example, employees with disabilities or health issues may find it much easier to work in a firm that offers flexible or remote working options. A day-care facility might be a deal maker for a single father — one that keeps him loyal to the company even if he is offered a bigger package from a competing firm. A non-restrictive dress code can make a workplace more welcoming for transgender and gender fluid employees.

A sensitive workplace culture is not just great for the women working there, but for everyone. Today, even typically male-dominated sectors focus on making the workplace friendlier for not just women, but also queer and transgender employees, and everyone who prefers a less toxic environment. For instance, many organisations are moving away from a drinking culture as a way to bond or close deals, in the process being more inclusive of those who do not drink alcoholic beverages because of health restrictions or religious beliefs.

Offering real support

Diversity is not just about ticking a box and hiring from minority groups for PR purposes. The intention is to provide real opportunities and choices for all, with a 360-degree workplace strategy. This can include mentorship and sponsorship programmes to ensure people have adequate guidance through their career, or offering workstyle freedom and letting people decide where and how they operate. This can even be done with inclusive workspace design — like Northern Trust’s Pune office, which tackles the problem of ableism through a multi-sensory design approach. Since inclusivity and wellness are core to Northern Trust's values, we brought these values to their workplace through a design solution that focused on all the five senses.

Northern Trust, Pune

For instance, the tactile strips on the floors help those who face visual impairment, while the colour contrasts are planned in a way that makes it easily distinguishable for people affected by colour blindness.

Most importantly, a diversity-focussed workplace strategy involves the willingness to look beyond the norms and foster real change. For instance, unless a particular group is well-represented in your organisation, you may not even realise the ways in which your firm might be exclusive and divisive. Even if your workforce demographics are balanced and diverse, you still need to make sure that the company culture and attitudes don’t hamper real diversity in terms of opportunities. After all, we have come a long way, and it would be irresponsible to see this as the end of the journey, when we’re only just beginning.

With more than 20 years of experience in Marketing and Branding, our Global Head of Marketing at Space Matrix, Fiza Hasan Malhotra, believes in the power of company culture to spark talent, power growth and build brands. And as a member of Space Matrix's Executive Council, Fiza is deeply involved in making inclusion and diversity a key part of our workplace culture and corporate messaging.