The Idea Exchange: Crowdsourcing Women’s Advancement

iStock_000009030018XSmallBy Robin Madell, San Francisco

Imagine if you were able to recruit women from across the country to spend hundreds of hours debating how best to help women stay on the leadership track at American companies.

Then imagine what might happen if a small group of those women spent countless more hours distilling the resulting ideas into 78 solutions, 16 ideas for CEOs to make change in just 24 hours, and tips and advice for women themselves.

Well, Bentley Center for Women and Business (CWB) did just that. The resulting report—Idea Exchange: Advancing Women in the Workplace—helped move this type of conversation into action by sharing ways to eliminate barriers both small and large to the supports women need inside the office and at home.

The Glass Hammer spoke with Susan M. Adams, PhD, senior director for the CWB, who helped lead the Idea Exchange initiative and facilitated the writing of the report by serving as the content expert.

What’s Behind the Idea Exchange?

The CWB’s mission focuses on identifying and sharing actionable ideas to increase the number of women leaders in business and helping companies harness the talents of women. Adams explains that the Idea Exchange was born because the organization wanted to hear from those closest to the issues to understand what they thought was needed.

“We needed to hear what was most important to them,” says Adams. “So through an online discussion platform, over 350 men and women shared their suggestions and commented on others’ recommendations for three weeks.”

But that was just the beginning. A trained moderator, Cindy Richards, posted comments at least once daily to ask for clarifications and to highlight interesting postings for others to notice and comment on. Following the three weeks of online discussion, 11 of the active and most provocative participants were invited to create the writing collaborative that produced the report.

Adams explains that the eight-week writing process started by identifying the major issues raised during the online discussion. The 11 participants of the writing collaborative then broke into topical subgroups to summarize and build on the issues. “At that point, the moderator became a task master to keep the project moving, and I supplied data and research findings as needed so they could relate and extend their recommendations to past studies,” says Adams. “About week three of the writing collaborative phase, they started creating the report. The ground rule for the report was that everyone had to agree with recommendations for them to be included.”

During the initial online discussion phase, the moderator and Adams had daily phone calls to review comments and decide which ones should be highlighted. During the writing collaborative phase, the writers, moderator, and Adams held weekly phone calls—and occasionally twice a week calls—to discuss issues and keep the project moving. “I can’t overemphasize how intense the process was, because all involved were so passionate about creating a report that could positively impact future opportunities for women.”

78 Solutions

The resulting 54-page report featured 78 solutions to help advance the careers of women. Here are 10 of the recommendations for actions that companies can take:

  • Embed gender diversity initiatives into strategic conversations and strategic planning.
  • Review your strategic framework—mission statement, vision statement, and values—to ensure it contains a commitment to inclusion and diversity.
  • Set a corporate policy that says your company will not sell products with advertising that sexualizes girls or is sexist in nature.
  • Require existing board members to sponsor a female leader.
  • Foster non-competitive workplaces, allowing employees to seize the “anti-ladder.”
  • Conduct regular retention interviews of high-potential women.
  • Make distance learning available to women who have chosen to slow down their careers.
  • Construct networks—both external across industries and internal to companies—to support women networking.
  • Document childcare options close to the office, or offer on-site childcare.
  • Invert the traditional approval process by making managers get approval to deny an employee’s request for a flexible/alternative schedule.

The most important finding, according to Adams, is that the problems unearthed by the Idea Exchange require concerted efforts from multiple stakeholders — women, their employers, their families, CEOs, and public policy leaders. “Women in finance, law, and technology are fighting an uphill battle in fields where the business practices cater more to men’s ways of working and are not very accommodating of women’s styles or life challenges,” says Adams. “Women need to enlist the assistance of others to make genuine, sustainable change in entrenched systems, practices, attitudes, and behaviors that are creating the barriers to career advancement for women in those fields.”

What Can Be Done

The report left no stone unturned in providing these multiple stakeholders with news each can use to solve and resolve women’s challenges to workplace advancement. Adams shares some actionable ideas for each group:

  • CEOs. “CEOs who claim to want to retain and promote women need to ‘walk the talk’ by providing necessary resources such as training to navigate politics and identify career paths, and offering flexible work arrangements whenever possible,” says Adams. “CEOs can also demonstrate their commitment by openly grooming a few women as their sponsors and encouraging or mandating that other male senior executives do the same.”
  • Companies. “Company practices need to be intentionally inclusive to make sure women are not left behind,” says Adams. “If a company does not recognize the strategic advantages of a gender-diverse organization, corporate practices are more likely to mimic and cater to senior management leadership styles and preferences—which are most often male. There are many barriers that women may face in male-dominated environments. Creating a gender-inclusive culture will also allow men to take advantage of flexible work arrangements to be more accessible fathers and lighten the ‘mother-load.’”
  • Women. “Women should become more proactive and not wait for others to help them,” says Adams. “They need to continuously prepare themselves and other women to take advantage of opportunities. For example, do you know who is involved in the strategic planning process in your organization? If there are no women involved, approach your CEO to discuss the best way to ensure greater diversity in the process.”
  • Public Policy Makers. “Policy makers can encourage more support to working parents with better childcare options and school programs to prepare girls for business leadership,” says Adams. “They can also highlight businesses that are supporting women to demonstrate importance and that it can be done.”

There is no single solution, and the report doesn’t pretend otherwise — it offers a wide array of recommendations. Different women and different companies can pick and choose the solutions that work best for their unique situations. “Every woman, every family, and every company deals with changing priorities on a continuing basis, so the suggestions from this study should be seen as options to consider on a continuing basis,” says Adams. “The group had many more ideas, as I am sure readers of The Glass Hammer will. It’s time to start implementing them.”