March 15th, 2011 | 6:00 am

5 Ways to Keep Your Women’s Initiative on Track

filed under Networking

iStock_000002096821XSmallBy Melanie H. Axman (Boston)

It’s no surprise that throughout the economic downturn, companies’ resources have become scarce, and issues of diversity and gender inclusion tend to take a backseat to shrinking profit margins. Despite these ever-increasing challenges, some businesses and organizations have managed to navigate these and other distractions. Keeping their women’s initiative at the forefront of their business growth and on the road to success, they share some of their insight through these 5 tips.

1. Form a long-term strategic plan. Similar to the market, companies face their own plethora of challenges that tend to take the focus away from many important issues and initiatives. However, having a strategic plan in place allows an organization to create a map of its resources, as well drive direction forward, despite a demanding and evolving landscape.

Nancy Calderon, chair of KPMG’s Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) attributes part of the success of women’s advancement in the firm to a far-sighted vision of an objective. She explains, “When we started, we developed a long-term strategy to support our objectives, and we’ve continued to evolve it over the years. That strategy includes the development and continuous improvement of programs that are relevant, and easily executed by the members of KPMG’s Network of Women, which has nearly 60 chapters in KPMG offices across the country.”

2. Create a ‘gender intelligent’ organization. With more than 60 percent of it’s 60,000 employees worldwide being women, American Express has kept advancement of its female executives as a top priority.
To achieve this goal, American Express’ Global Diversity & Inclusion team launched “Women in the Pipeline and at the Top.” Through this initiative, the company conducted focus groups and individual interviews with senior women and men to identify barriers and opportunities at American Express that impact senior-most female advancement. The research revealed several central themes including lack of access to networking opportunities, the characterization of top leadership culture being molded by male-behaviors, and the limited number of role models for women aspiring to senior positions.

By recognizing the needs of their female executives as distinctly different from their male counterparts, American Express fosters a progressive and honest view of women in the workplace. Through this approach, their programs become much more impactful, by directly addressing the needs of their women employees.

3. Treat initiatives as corporate values. Many companies view women’s initiatives as an extra benefit or perk, however companies like General Mills recognize it as an integral and valuable culture in the workplace. Ken Charles, VP of Diversity and Inclusion for General Mills explains, “At General Mills, we see our efforts to create a diverse and inclusive work place as investments. Recruiting, retaining, and developing the talent we need to win now and in the future has real business value. We recognize that some businesses are better positioned to invest in initiatives but every business can make progress. Inclusion is free. Respect is free. Having a manager who listens is free. These aren’t programs, they’re values. As leaders within our enterprises we set the tone and establish the expectations.  If we rise to the task and lead, we can achieve the transformation we seek.”

4. Identify and highlight cost savings attained through initiatives. Women’s initiatives and similar programs can be associated with unecessary expense, rather than viewed as a mechanism that can save businesses money. However, programs like the Inclusion Initiative (jointly launched by Accenture, American Airlines, Comcast, DuPont, Exelon, General Mills, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft, Prudential, Sempra, and Walmart) found that the initiative helped them trim costs. Susan L. Blount, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Prudential, said, “The Inclusion Initiative model shows that corporate law departments can successfully use minority and women owned law firms for complex legal matters while reducing costs and positively impacting diversity.”

5. Recognize the growing voice of women in the workforce. It’s impossible to ignore the increasingly changing needs of the average family in North America. With the recession impacting far more male executives than females, many women became the sole breadwinners at home, changing the demographics of the workplace. Women’s Initiatives were once tools only utilized by seemingly progressive companies. Slowly but surely, they are becoming the norm, with resounding impact on the companies participating. After all, with women soon to make up 50% of the workforce, how can employers afford not to recognize the challenges and successes of the women who will change the face of their businesses?