Research Brief

The Art of Selling Corporate Gender Equity Initiatives

Workforce doesn’t identify as feminist? Maybe don’t use that word

Corporate policymakers have been aggressively upping their efforts to build more diverse, equitable and inclusionary workplaces the past few years. Yet the best of intentions doesn’t guarantee success if it doesn’t resonate with wide swaths of the existing workforce. A recent survey found that 1 in 3 workers view DEI policy as a waste of time.

UCLA Anderson’s Kaylene J. McClanahan and Margaret Shih collaborated on research that suggests one way to increase the effectiveness of diversity policy is to explicitly frame initiatives in a way that can best engage staff — not just executives — as allies. 

Don’t Say Feminist?

Research published in Organization Science makes a similar case for carefully framing how to advance gender equity initiatives in a way that resonates with the most employees.

Across five experiments, Northwestern’s Cynthia S. Wang and Brayden G. King, UCLA Anderson’s Jennifer A. Whitson and United Parent Leaders Action Network’s Rachel L. Ramirez find that avoiding explicit mention of “feminist” in gender equity policy initiatives may be a more effective way to get broad worker buy-in, as it doesn’t run the risk of inadvertently alienating employees who don’t identify as feminists.

A 2020 Pew Research report found that 4 in 10 women and 6 in 10 men do not feel the term “feminist” describes them “very well” or “well.”

The researchers find that among workers with a low level of feminist identification, framing gender equity initiatives as an “organizational” policy will be viewed more positively, on average, than a frame that explicitly uses a “feminist” or “#MeToo” label in the official policy pitch. This is especially true when workers have a high level of pride in where they work.

Cast a Wider Net

In an experiment conducted on Amazon Mechanical Turk, nearly 400 participants answered questions to establish the extent to which they identified as a feminist and then were asked to imagine a scenario in which they worked at a company where the C-suite announced a new gender equity initiative that would recruit a task force to study potential changes.

Some participants were told to imagine they received an email from the CEO that referred to the implementation of a “new feminist policy.” Others were told to imagine an email that didn’t include the feminist label, merely saying the CEO was implementing “a new policy.”

On a scale of 1 (very unlikely) to 6 (very likely) participants were asked to quantify their level of support by indicating how likely they were to recruit co-workers to join the task force.

The researchers ran an analysis that sorted participants into those with a higher level of feminist identification and those with a lower level of feminist identification.

As the chart below shows, those who identified as feminist and read an email that included the “feminist” label were — not surprisingly — the most likely to say they would support the initiative, with an average score of 4.2. But among those who reported a low level of feminist identification, the explicit mention of “feminist” in the email backfired, with an average score of 2.7.  The low-feminist identifiers who received the more generic email pitch pushing an organization initiative that didn’t mention the word “feminist” were at least neutral on their support, with an average score of 3.0.

Another experiment with more than 700 participants followed a similar design that focused on the introduction of a new sexual harassment policy. Some participants read an email that included “#MeToo” in the text,  while others simply read about a new policy.

Here too, if the goal is to cast the widest net in terms of worker buy-in, those with a low level of feminist identification were marginally more likely to support the initiative if it was not explicitly pitched with a feminist (#MeToo) label.

The researchers also found that workers — regardless of their level of feminist identification — who had a stronger sense of pride in their organization were more likely to support gender equity than those with a lower opinion of their workplace.

Nearly 400 workers representing a diverse mix of industries recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk were put through another similar exercise to gauge their support of a new gender equity initiative. Participants were also asked a series of questions to determine their level of organizational pride.

As shown below, participants who strongly identified as feminist and had strong positive feelings about their workplace, had high levels of support regardless of whether their pitch included the term “feminist” or not. Again, not surprising.

In the paper, support for gender initiatives included:

  1. Join the task force
  2. Try to recruit others to join the task force
  3. Volunteer your efforts to help the task force, even if it means extra work during work for you
  4. Spend time researching diversity practices so that you can lend insight to the task force
  5. Post on social media in support of the aims of the task force
  6. Vocalize your support in a meeting with all the staff of the organization

What’s interesting is the level of buy-in among those with low feminist identification. Among this subset, those with a high opinion of their workplace who were soft pedaled a pitch that didn’t push feminism, were decidedly on-board, with an average score above 4.0, on a scale of 1 to 6. Additional analysis ruled out both fear and anger as having any impact on these findings.

The authors note that the takeaway is not to avoid feminist labels, but to read the room.

“If an organization has many employees high in feminist identification, then a feminist label may be used as a strategy to mobilize allies and to produce effective policy implementation,” they write. “However, our work suggests that when employees are diverse in collective identities, it may be more effective to use an organizational label.”

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About the Research

Wang, C.S., Whitson, J.A., King, B.G., Ramirez, R.L. (2021). Social Movements, Collective Identity, and Workplace Allies: The Labeling of Gender Equity Policy Changes. Organization Science. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2021.1492

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