More than window dressing : Communicating gender equality online

| March 23, 2022

To demonstrate real commitment to corporate gender equality, companies should explain the practical steps they are taking, and respond openly to criticism, says Mali Perdeaux

Our visitor research survey* comments show a steady trickle of men complaining that they are being squeezed out of the corporate digital space, where they no longer see themselves represented or celebrated. There is an element here of the maxim that, to the privileged, the erosion of privilege feels more like erasure than rebalancing – but it does raise an interesting point.

A glance at the imagery on many corporate websites suggests workforces that are awash with women and people of colour, a fact that many companies’ own diversity data – which is often helpfully provided elsewhere on their sites – confirms is far from the case.

So, should the digital estate reflect the organization as it is or the one it aspires to be? 

There is a case to be made for “dressing for the job [or equitable workforce] you want rather than the one you have”. However, companies need to strike the right balance between aspiration and reality. The gap between the two is all too apparent on many leadership pages, where the contrast between the gender balanced, multicultural workforce displayed around the site and an often primarily – if not exclusively – white, male leadership is undeniable. This creates a dissonance that also shows up in our survey comments, and which can undermine the good intentions of diversity messaging elsewhere.

The dissonance was painfully evident to many organizations on International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th via a clever Twitter bot under the account @PayGapApp. The channel reposted corporate tweets carrying the #IWD2022 hashtag in Quote Tweets accompanied by a simple line noting the gender pay gap in the organization (positive, negative, or neutral). In one stroke it made the chasm between the declared support for women and the practical approach to equality in many corporates painfully clear.

Goldman Sachs – aspirations versus the pay gap

Take Goldman Sachs, as just one example. The financial services firm shared a post “…celebrating the women across our global firm who lead with brilliance, passion and superpowers every day…” which the @PayGapApp bot retweeted with the comment, “In this organisation, women’s median hourly pay is 36.8% lower than men’s”.

At the time of writing, this version had been retweeted 8,499 times, including 652 quote tweets, and liked by 55.5k users. From the sample we saw, it is safe to assume that few of the associated comments were positive. The original post on the @GoldmanSachs feed, by contrast, had 60 re- and quote tweets (the parity here suggesting these are likely an internal signal boosting exercise) and 291 likes. Ouch.

In contrast to the “cheerleading” approach of Goldman Sachs, some organizations chose to demonstrate their commitment to improving the current imbalance by discussing how they are tackling underlying structural issues. Many of these efforts were not only more compelling but more convincing.

Tweet

Aviva.com – addressing the issues

Insurance company Aviva has one of the best digital estates we know for showcasing the practical steps being taken towards equality, such as shared parental leave and publishing salaries on (some) job opportunities. The organization chose the day before International Women’s Day to publish a ‘Women in Finance Charter’. Spearheaded by CEO Amanda Blanc, this calls for urgent industry-wide action to address gender inequality in senior management in the sector and sets out proposals for practical steps companies could take in clear bullet-points.

Like many organizations, most of Aviva’s overt IWD material was reserved for social channels. The company’s #InternationalWomensDay post on LinkedIn received an early critical comment, again citing its gender pay gap. In contrast to the response of many companies on Twitter – which rapidly deleted posts @PayGapApp had retweeted – Aviva responded swiftly with a polite reply acknowledging the issue, briefly setting out the plan to correct it, and providing a link to a relevant report.

Linkedin screen shot

Capita Group – Seizing the moment to drive the conversation

The ripples of the PayGapApp extended beyond the immediate impact on March 8th. On March 14th Caitlin Kinsella, Director of Employee Engagement and Inclusion for Capita Group, posted an article on LinkedIn titled ‘Why we welcome being called out by the Gender Pay Gap Bot’. The piece acknowledges the issue, cites the systemic reasons without becoming defensive, and outlines the steps Capita is taking to try to make change. There is a sense here that Ms Kinsella may have harnessed the public controversy to drive the conversation internally. The choice to post this on LinkedIn and not the company website is an interesting one – the public platform creates an impression of openness, while the ‘professional peer’ audience here affords more space for nuance than some social channels. Crucially, though, when the article was shared on Twitter – not a natural home for nuanced debate – the social media team were poised to reply to comments in an honest and informed way, which worked to reduce much (if not all) of the potential ire. 

Neither Aviva or Capita Group claim to be perfect; by choosing to emphasise practical steps towards progress they creates an impression of transparency and of a sincere commitment to do better. 

Done well, acknowledging the current reality in this way has an additional benefit; as Rachel Billington, leader for ED&I for Europe and India regions at Aecom, noted in one of a small series of IWD blog posts on aecom.com:

“… Because gender equality benefits everyone, not just women. Women shouldn’t have to fight this battle alone … too often, men are excluded from ED&I and feel they don’t have the right to be included in the conversation. One group doesn’t have to lose for another to win.”

Twitter screen shot

There is a limit to the amount of control corporate digital teams have over issues such as committing to structural change to address the gender pay gap, or even over policies such as posting salary information on job roles in the Careers section. However, the Aviva and Capita Group examples offer a good framework for how the estate can be used to manage reputation in this sphere: when explaining your aspirations – whether for diversity, gender balance or sustainability goals – acknowledging the current situation and the work still to be done lends weight and conviction to your message.

* Our Visitor Research surveys have been running on client sites for many years and we are approaching 1 million respondents. You can find out more about our visitor research service on our website, or get in touch with Dan for more details.

(International Men’s Day is on 19 November)

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Our Bowen Craggs Club membership has enabled us to benchmark all aspects of our digital presence against global all-sector best practice, share lessons and ideas with peers, and get both quick-win and longer term recommendations for improvement. Bowen Craggs is also providing us with valuable advice on our approach to online communications following the acquisition of G4S by Allied Universal.”
 

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