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Corporate Diversity & Inclusion Conference Addresses Work Life Balance

By Jessica Titlebaum (Chicago)

The Exelon Corporation ’s chief executive officer, John Rowe, ruffled some feathers at the Corporate Diversity & Inclusion Conference in Chicago last week when he said in his keynote speech, “If you want work-life balance, you don’t belong on an executive board.” Just before saying that, he had explained that Exelon values diversity and that he has employees of a large variety of cultures and creeds. “It is hard to teach diversity when everyone looks like you,” he said. Which is why his prior statement came as such a surprise. When asked to clarify, he said that senior level jobs take a totality of time and that balance becomes impossible in certain professions.

Baraz Samiian, a diversity consultant in the Diversity Strategy and Development department at BlueCross BlueShield of Florida said that Rowe may not have been aware of the implications of what he said. She took from his speech that if you have younger children, parents who need to be taken care of or other personal and ethnic commitments, you need not apply.

“He is preaching about being open to change but he said that unless you assimilate to the old style corporate culture, there is no room for you on the executive board,” said Samiian.

While Rowe vocalized, at least in part, an old fashioned perspective, other companies and speakers were more progressive, highlighting their initiatives that are helping foster corporate diversity.

Josefine Van Zanten, the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Royal Dutch Shell talked about how Shell’s internal programs were changing the lives of their female employees in countries that don’t usually give women leadership roles. She explained that these women come from cultures where their opinion is not valued and their voices go unheard. When they enter into the program and are in situations where they are respected, they develop confidence as well as business skills and networks. “A conversation about reaching their potential becomes necessary,” added Van Zanten.

Barbara Gault, the vice president and director of research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington D.C. led a discussion about support networks for immigrant women. She described a study they did on Latina women in Arizona, Atlanta and Washington D.C. in which they found that Latina women were more likely to be in poor or fair health. They were also less likely to survive breast cancer, cervical cancer and HIV. The Institute was working to provide these women support systems and business networks. Gault said that one thing corporate America could do to help is offer them paid sick days. “When something is going around like the swine flu, this becomes a public problem because these women are afraid to take an unpaid day,” said Gault.

The conversation then turned to flexibility for women in the workplace in general. Gault explained that a wide misconception is that many women trade pay for a flexible schedule. “This is a false belief because women are less likely to have a flexible work schedule if they have lower paying jobs,” she explained. “It is the women who have control over their schedules that take advantage of flexibility.”

During subsequent sessions, panelists looked at additional diversity issues, including how to incorporate learning initiatives for LGBT issues into diversity and inclusion strategies. Speakers included, KerryAnn Bryan who manages Diversity and Inclusion training courses at Goldman Sachs and Ritu Bajaj, a senior design researcher from Steelcase Inc. who shared her experience about coming out at work. Bajaj explained that it was hard to form relationships with her co-workers when she was always on the guard about her personal life. Eventually, when she came out to her colleagues, she felt more productive as an employee.

When developing an LGBT initiative, the panelists said to reflect on your own life experiences with regards to sexual orientation equality and to challenge your assumptions. They said to get key leaders involved, engage the LGBT employee as a partner, not the lead, and to keep the program consistent with existing diversity practices.

The conference coordinators polled the audience on what the biggest factor was that influenced Diversity and Inclusion strategies. 44 per cent of the audience believed it was globalization; 32 per cent said it was multigenerational issues; 16 per cent said it was the incorporation of diversity into talent management and only 6 per cent said women’s education levels rising influenced diversity initiatives the most.

The conference highlighted the deficiencies as well as the advances that have been made through corporate initiatives implemented to foster a different type of corporate culture. But, with better support systems, internal development programs and growing business networks, women, as well as other minorities, are well on their way to being able to find an appropriate balance between work and home, without having to sacrifice their boardroom ambitions.