Serious about workplace equality? Start by eliminating these blind spots

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More than 30 years ago, when I was an enterprising, young bank executive in my home state of Ohio, I called a meeting at 7 a.m. A frequent early riser, I didn’t view the pre-8 a.m. start time as a big deal — that is until I received some constructive feedback from a female co-worker.

This was back in the days before joining a meeting remotely was a viable alternative to attending in person. My frustrated colleague made me aware that the early-morning meeting had wreaked havoc on her day care routine.

At the time, I considered myself someone who was sensitive to the challenges of women, both in and out of the workplace. After all, I was raised by my maternal grandmother, who taught me inclusion and respect for all people. Plus, I was blessed to be married to the same strong, amazing woman I share my life with today.

It wasn’t lack of respect for my female colleague that caused me to err in establishing that early meeting time; it was a lack of awareness. I simply failed to put myself in the shoes of a working mother.

While the playing field for women in the workplace is undeniably closer to level than it was in the 1980s, the fact is that male executives are still susceptible to having blind spots where their female colleagues are concerned. For instance, a strong, assertive management style is typically praised when the leader is male yet viewed as a character defect for female managers. And I think it’s fair to say that many men in the workplace still struggle to fully appreciate the unique challenges working mothers face.

Believe me, I don’t mean to suggest that only women face workplace challenges. Nor do I mean to take shots at my fellow male business executives, many of whom do a great job of respecting the work-life-balance needs of all their employees.

What I am suggesting is this: Even in 2018, with smartphones, videoconferencing and other advancements designed to create freedom and flexibility, female executives (especially those with children in the home) still face work-life challenges that their male counterparts do not.

See the recent Most Powerful Women rankings:

The Most Powerful Women in Banking
Women to Watch
The Most Powerful Women in Finance

So how does an organization account for this imbalance and start working toward a truly level playing field? I believe it starts with being very intentional and prescriptive in your policies and procedures.

The fact is, all of us are working at a breakneck pace while trying our best to do the right thing. But just like in my 7 a.m. meeting example, we sometimes forget (or fail to recognize) inequities and challenges that are unique to women in the workplace.

This is why it’s absolutely crucial to define your organizational commitment to work-life balance, gender equality and inclusivity. It’s not enough to discuss the topic in the boardroom and in senior leadership meetings. If a bank wants to foster a culture of equality that truly permeates its organization, the most senior executives must demonstrate that commitment every day, and they must be able to clearly and passionately communicate it to all associates.

How can leaders tell if their organization is doing enough to support, foster and empower women? There are some positive signs that they’re getting it right. For starters, at all levels of the company, employees should be able to recognize the organization’s commitment to work-life balance, and policies and procedures must clearly reflect a commitment to inclusion and equality.

This means communicating your corporate values, vision and behavioral expectations to your employees in an intentional, consistent way. At Old National, our employees display our corporate mission, vision and values on their computer screens every day, and all associates must complete annual compliance training related to our commitment to diversity, inclusion and business ethics.

Equally important is that your employee base — especially your leadership team — looks like the communities you serve. In other words, an organizational chart should include women in positions of prominence and importance.

Bank executives should also refuse to tolerate any double standard related to how women employees are treated, viewed or talked about. Harassment of any kind, toward anyone, should not be tolerated.

We view this as such a critical issue at Old National that we introduced a companywide program earlier this year called Speak Up. At the heart of Speak Up is a team of employee “cultural champions” who were identified and trained to assist their fellow associates who might be more comfortable confiding in a trusted peer than immediately elevating their issue through more established channels.

And finally, a bank should have programs and benefits in place that are designed to enable and support working women. These could include an associate resource group geared toward women and strong talent development and succession planning that emphasizes the importance of women leaders. These programs might also include robust family leave and post-pregnancy benefits and strong, family-focused health care benefits, such as access to a dedicated health clinic for employees and their covered dependents.

When you put strong policies and procedures in place, communicate consistently and intentionally, and clearly demonstrate that management is committed to diversity, inclusion and equity for all associates, you can start to eliminate the blind spots and level the playing field in your organization.

While admittedly I’m still an early riser, I’ve learned over the past three decades to avoid scheduling 7 a.m. meetings. Yet the most important thing I’ve learned as a bank CEO is this: People are the most important asset that any company has, and a strong, inclusive culture that values and supports the unique challenges of women is absolutely critical to success.

Bob Jones' is the chief executive of Old National, which earned a team award as part of our Most Powerful Women program. His BankThink post is part of a series that also features Keith Mestrich, the CEO of Amalgamated Bank; Kathryn Petralia, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Kabbage; LeeAnne Linderman, a former executive vice president at Zions Bancorp.; and H. Rodgin Cohen, senior chairman of the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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Employee engagement Gender issues Work-life balance Old National Bank Women in Banking