The Next Smart Step: How to Overcome Gender Stereotypes and Build a Stronger Organization

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Diversifying the Workplace, One Company at a Time: The Millions Interviews Jodi Ecker Detjen

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In their new book, The Next Smart Step, co-authors Jodi Ecker Detjen and Kelly Watson offer tangible ways to root out workplace gender bias and inequity and implement successful strategies for building inclusive organizations. The book argues that equality is not just a moral or ethical imperative but a sound business decision as well. Companies are ultimately more successful when there’s diversity—of gender, culture, and experience.

Detjen recently spoke to The Millions about the barriers to workplace gender equality, what we stand to gain from achieving it, how the pandemic has affected working women, and much more.

The Millions: The Next Smart Step isn’t just another statistic-laden book about gender equity in the workplace; it’s also a guide and toolkit for addressing our unconscious bias and making positive, enduring changes. Can you speak to the method outlined in the book?

Jodi Ecker Detjen: Our previous book focused on women—women’s careers, what interrupts them and what women can do. This book we wanted to go further—what men and organizations can do to help.

Our next smart steps are all about taking a strategic approach to the challenges that face organizations as they work towards inclusion. When we move beyond the fear around this, actually most organizations know how to tackle this problem—like any other business challenge:

Create a vision or strategic goal for what inclusion means to your organization and the impact it will have. Be sure to bring in voices from across the organization so that the process itself is inclusive.
Measure where you are today—for example, what are the demographic numbers in terms of hiring, promotion, performance evaluation? Where do the barriers exist within the processes? How is the culture experienced and how does it differ by group?
Create a plan for reaching the vision. Just like we do every time we create a strategy. It’s really just that—creating a strategy on inclusion. Whether that’s changing the promotion process so that all the preparatory support is shared across employees to changing the hiring process across each step to remove bias.
Ask people to speak up who aren’t. Give people a minute to think before they speak. Sit on decisions. Go back and evaluate decisions. It’s really not that different pre- or post-Covid
Pilot. For us, piloting these changes in particular area gives the organization an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. To try it out.
Roll out—systemize and then measure, measure measure. Rinse and repeat.

TM: There are so many positives—for employees, workplaces, and the economy—that come with achieving gender equity in the workplace. Why do you think there’s still resistance (either passive or active) in trying to achieve that?

JED: I think in large part this resistance is because people are afraid of losing something. People look at inclusiveness as a fixed pie—if we get more women in leadership, there will be less men in leadership. But what we know from a lot of research and financial modeling is that the more we open up roles to more people, it actually grows the pie.

Here’s an example: If a woman becomes a senior leader, she will make more money. That means she has more money to spend. She might eat out more (more restaurants), need more help at home (more cleaning companies), pay more for clothes (more clothing companies), need more technology to manage (more tech companies), etc. This all creates more demand to which there will be more supply, thus creating more businesses. Result: A bigger pie.

TM: The pandemic has forced so many women—especially women of color—out of the workforce. Do you think this is a temporary setback, or something with more far-reaching implications?

JED: It’s both. Temporarily because many of the jobs lost will come back once the pandemic ends. More jobs because the industries that lost so many like restaurants and events—both women-dominated—will return.

But there are many far-reaching implications. Why is it that so many women have had to leave with children under six? Why is it that childcare was such a secondary concern? And why is it that women are the ones that are shouldering this? Where are the fathers?

This she-cession is showcasing the gendered roles both at work and home we have in this country. It’s time for these to be reframed. Time for us to face the assumption that women are the ones who are solely or mostly responsible for raising kids and realize this is something we are all responsible for. It can’t be an individual problem anymore. But it’s also something that companies really need to consider. Why is it that childcare isn’t a standard benefit? As companies start to think about how to return to work, will they consider the implications for families? Will they consider how to help moms not shoulder the main burden? To help daughters not to shoulder the majority of eldercare? Or will companies design the new way of working that benefits just a few?

TM: What makes you most hopeful about the direction of the gender equity movement?

JED: Women’s voices. I’m hopeful because the costs of the way things work is incredibly high. Just think about the women who were involved in the landing of Perseverance on Mars. Or building the Covid vaccine. If these women’s voices had been lost, imagine the cost! We can no longer rely on the ideas of the few who happen to be demographically similar.

I’m hopeful because as more voices are included into the system, more ideas will come. More solutions. More positive impact on the world. No one—not even the most biased person—would want another person to not realize their potential as long as they got to realize theirs too. We have been living in a fixed-pie view of the world, where as more women get power, say, less men do. It’s time to reframe this and start to imagine a world where so many more get to have a say in their and others’ lives. Wow. Can you imagine?
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