The Role of Workplace Culture to Attract and Retain Women in the Organization

As we celebrate Women’s History month to honor the contributions of women, we should reflect on how business benefits from the full participation of women in all levels of the organization to drive innovation and performance forward. To understand how, we can start with the role of culture, specifically the importance of healthy and vibrant cultures to attract and retain women at all levels of the organization along with their male counterparts.  

Unfortunately, we know that unhealthy cultures do exist, and we can look towards the technology sector to understand how the #MeToo movement exposed unhealthy workplace climates that researchers have come to label as toxic and ultimately unproductive (Chapman & White, 2014) and (Anjum, Ming, Siddiqi, & Rasool, 2018). Emily Chang wrote about the toxic culture women particularly face in technology companies in Brotopia (Chang, 2018). Unlike earlier books that focus on individual agency by encouraging women to “lean in” (Sandberg, 2013), Chang focused on the environment, specifically the culture that needs to change. She was unsparing in her criticism of many male leaders who have consistently failed to confront the issue, which has resulted in lower levels of STEM graduates entering technology-focused careers in 2021, reversing progress from two decades prior (Helman A, 2020, Feb 28). 

To counter that narrative, my doctoral research focused on the challenges that technology-enabled firms confront in decentralizing ideation and innovation value creation throughout the organization. Through the course of three studies, I showed how positive social interactions and the quality of workplace relationships shape innovation as an organizational capability and build vibrant and healthy organizational cultures (Kendall, 2016). 

In the strategy and leadership interdisciplinary research literature, we find that social intelligence skills such as being aware of another’s needs, focusing on subordinate development, and supporting teams are positively correlated with organizational performance and innovation (Bain, Mann, & Pirola-Merlo, 2001; Rosenbaum, 1990; Thamhain, 2003). Successful leaders demonstrate superior capabilities for listening, persuading, and reconciling multiple perspectives (Frank, 2006). Intuitively, this makes sense. High-quality relationships shaped by positive emotional interactions with leaders and peers are significantly correlated with job performance outcomes (Gittell, 2010) and learning (Carmeli & Gittell, 2009). 

My current research finds that there are physiological and psychological underpinnings that drive effectiveness. Effective teams inspire, nurture, and foster healthy relationships that support healthy competition and collaboration. Leaders who succeed in continual transformation and renewal of their organizations do so by leveraging emotional intelligence competencies to establish a shared vision and create alignment for finding new sources of firm growth. These leaders leverage a variety of emotional and social intelligence factors including adaptability, organizational and emotional self-awareness, positive outlook, coach and mentoring, and conflict management. 

Unsurprisingly, an employee’s capacity for voice—to offer a constructive challenge in an environment of trust and psychological safety—is strongly encouraged by positive connections with others and the leader within the organization. Constructive challenge is about disagreement, differences of opinion about how to do things, one’s understanding of an objective, or even about how to evaluate a successful outcome. Such conversations are difficult, because they are often emotionally laden and can take place in a charged atmosphere under large amounts of stress. However, when constructive challenge is viewed positively in the context of relationships, it leads to successful action.  

Skillful leaders form bonds of meaningful human connection that are mutually affirming and regenerative, and these relationships are the bulwark against the accompanying strum and drang (storm and drive) within changing environments. Women (and men) respond positively to leaders and workplace cultures that embrace relational quality to build human connections and durable positive interactions (Kendall, 2016). Workplace cultures and leaders who build high-quality relationships spark powerful capacity for action around them and are far more likely to attract and retain women at all levels throughout the organization.  

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Anjum, A., Ming, X., Siddiqi, A. F., & Rasool, S. F. 2018. An empirical study analyzing job productivity in toxic workplace environments. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(5): 1035. 

Bain, P. G., Mann, L., & Pirola-Merlo, A. 2001. The innovation imperative: The relationships between team climate, innovation, and performance in research and development teams. Small Group Research, 32(1): 55-73. 

Carmeli, A., & Gittell, J. H. 2009. High-quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(6): 709-729. 

Chang, E. 2018. Brotopia : breaking up the boys' club of Silicon Valley. New York, New York: Portfolio/Penguin. 

Chapman, G., & White, P. 2014. Rising above a toxic workplace: Taking care of yourself in an unhealthy environment: Moody Publishers. 

Frank, M. 2006. Knowledge, abilities, cognitive characteristics and behavioral competences of engineers with high capacity for engineering systems thinking (CEST). Systems Engineering, 9(2): 91-103. 

Gittell, J. H. S., R.; Wimbush, J. 2010. A relational model of how high-performance work systems flow. Organizational Science, 21(2): 490-506. 

Helman A, B. A., Colwell R. 2020, Feb 28. Factors that Drive the Underrepresentation of Women in Scientific, Engineering, and Medical Disciplines. In B. A. Helman A, Colwell R (Ed.), Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors., Vol. 2022. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 

Kendall, L. D. 2016. A theory of micro-level dynamic capabilities: How technology leaders innovate with human connection. Case Western Reserve University. 

Rosenbaum, B. 1990. How to lead today's technical professional. Paper presented at the Engineering Management Conference, 1990. Management Through the Year 2000-Gaining the Competitive Advantage, 1990 IEEE International. 

Sandberg, S. 2013. Lean in : women, work, and the will to lead (First edition. ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Thamhain, H. J. 2003. Managing innovative R&D teams. R&D Management, 33(3): 297-311. 

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