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6 Ways to Cultivate a Diverse and Equal Workplace The pandemic quickly eroded the small advances made in gender equality in the workplace. It's time for business leaders to do better.

By Sepideh Nasiri Edited by Amanda Breen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Equality has barely moved in decades. In the 25 years since we've recognized Equal Pay Day, the wage gap has only narrowed by $0.08. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of women in C-suite executive roles increased from 17 percent to 21 percent. These numbers reflect the reality that women face today, especially diverse women a reality that corporate America is still failing to live up to its pledges of support and promises to "do better."

Last year, the ongoing global health crisis swiftly regressed what little "progress" we'd made to close the gender gap in the workplace. Recent reporting shows that 2.3 million of women in the U.S. had completely dropped out of the labor force by the end of 2020.

We can't move at the same glacial pace we have in the past. We've seen that when left to their own devices, most companies barely move the needle. At Women of MENA In Technology, our mission is to empower Middle Eastern and North African women and girls around the world to pursue the fields of STEM, innovation and entrepreneurship despite conventional beliefs, societal pressures or inequality challenges. In our six years, we've witnessed how companies lack the internal structures to define, establish and evaluate diversity and inclusion.

Companies need to take bold and intentional action now; anything less perpetuates an ecosystem that fails women. If your company has not implemented these six important actions, you are holding back progress for a diverse and equal workplace.

1. Audit and re-adjust salary and benefits

The first and belated step is to pay employees equally, regardless of gender or race. The fact that pay gaps continue to persist is a tragedy in today's society. On average, women earn $0.82 to a man's dollar, but the disparity is even greater when we look at the gender wage gap across race, with Asian women earning $0.85 to the dollar, Black women earning $0.63 and Latinas earning $0.55 to the dollar.

The pay gap will not close on its own; we have to actively work to evaluate and recalibrate wages regularly. A number of large corporations have already done this. In 2015, Salesforce committed to offering equal pay, and every year, the company continues to conduct internal pay audits and bring wages to parity. Adobe, along with Twitter, Mattel and other companies, joined the EqualPayCA pledge this year, with Adobe boasting pay parity since 2018.

Related: 6 Steps We Can All Take to Narrow the Gender Pay Gap

Reaching equity at work will take more than salary adjustments. Benefits packages and policies need to be readjusted as well to combat deeply entrenched biases that hold women back. One slight positive from the pandemic was that many people had to start working from home, and virtual calls started featuring the messiness and complicated aspects of our domestic lives, including parenting.

Workplaces should embrace the flexibility and patience we all have this past year and start offering benefits like flexible work schedules and more robust medical and parental leaves. Benefits related to parenting need to be offered to women and men equally, otherwise we perpetuate the false dichotomy that women are the caregivers and men are the breadwinners. Workplaces do not have to make their employees pick between being a head of household or being a professional: They can help employees succeed in both roles.

2. Revisit your hiring strategy

Expand the way you think about the talent you need. One way is to invest in programs and organizations that are going to bring diversity into the ecosystem. There are several professional networking organizations that intentionally and systematically cultivate talent and leadership in minority groups who are predominately overlooked in the traditional workspace. Look for those community-led organizations and institutions and invest in them to help nurture talent.

Another option is to partner with universities and organizations that provide technical-training programs to diverse communities and open the door for people who have alternate career paths. In the past few years, Apple, Google and Facebook have made efforts to increase the talent pool by reaching traditionally underrepresented people through residency or training programs. Efforts like these will uproot disadvantages early on.

Related: 4 Steps to Demonstrate Your Commitment to Diversity

Internally, though, recruiters need the training to overcome ingrained biases to write inclusive job descriptions that welcome, not tokenize, diverse talent. Diversity hiring belittles the skills and expertise of those employees and reduces them to nothing more than their inherent differences. Instead, include language and perks that invite women of all walks of life to apply; this includes being transparent on salary.

3. Start at the top

For a workplace to be truly diverse and inclusive, your leadership needs to uphold and emulate those values. Time and again, diversity in companies is mainly found in entry level positions, with women making up 47 percent of entry-level roles, steadily dropping off along the corporate ladder with only 21 percent in C-suite roles. This is called "the broken rung," which holds women back from being promoted to managerial positions. However, for diversity and inclusion to be meaningful, the entire corporate ladder needs to be diverse, including the executive team.

Often women cite lack of mentorship or growth tracks as barriers to gettng promoted. Rather than wait for women to slowly move up the ladder, start now. Make it a tangible goal to have a certain number of women working in certain levels of your companies and recruit deliberately to find the right talent.

4. Look at diversity as a spectrum, not a checklist

If companies are genuine about diversifying their teams, they need to understand what diversity means. It's time to reevaluate the categories we use regarding identity, especially the way we categorize race and ethnicity. Race is a social construct, and a very limiting one at that.

We need workplaces to broaden their understanding of culture and identity beyond a couple of checkboxes. Start with internal surveys in which employees can voluntarily share how they identify. Then, make room to celebrate and accommodate diversity: offer floating cultural holidays or publish materials in different languages.

Related: Be Intentional About Diversity

This year, Governor of California Gavin Newsom officially proclaimed March 20, 2021 as Nowrūz Day. Celebrated by 300 million people around the world, including Persians, Nowrūz marks the first day of Spring and is regarded as the New Year. In his proclamation, Newsom recognized the rich culture and the many contributions Persians have made to California. Similarly, Facebook and Instagram created Nowrūz-themed photo filters and stickers, respectively, for their users this year. This was the first year Instagram offered these stickers, and Instagram's announcement of the stickers has been one of their most liked social-media posts. Acts of understanding, respect and open celebration like these go a long way toward making minority communities feel seen, valued and included.

5. Recognize and elevate women employees

In this year's Women in Tech Report, Tech Radius found that 78 percent of women in tech feel they have to work harder than their coworkers to prove their worth, and 39 percent of women see gender bias as a barrier to promotion in 2021. The way to close the gender gap is to build a bridge to help women get across. Senior leaders need to prioritize retaining and promoting women throughout their careers via strong advancement pipelines and opportunities for professional development and leadership training. Reallocate budgets to ensure that a portion goes directly to supporting women in professional-development opportunities, with the intention of fast-tracking those employees into managerial positions.

Inclusion also means educating men and white professionals of all levels on unconscious biases and encouraging allyship programs at work. The burden of inclusion should not fall on the employees with diverse identities; people should instead make an effort to understand the history of exclusion and make conscientious and aggressive efforts to dismantle barriers.

6. Listen and learn constantly

It's not enough to make changes once. The best people to tell you how your policies and strategies are failing are the people who you're failing your employees. Continuously reach out, conduct surveys and get feedback from your women employees to ensure they feel a sense of belonging and learn what improvements can be made to progress further. You'll be surprised by the different inclusive approaches you discover when you give a voice to everyone.

We challenge leaders, executives and hiring departments to make measurable and meaningful moves by the end of this year. Create the strategic plan of action today that will carry your organization further in equality by next year's International Women's Day.

Even if you don't consider yourself a leader or member of the executive or hiring teams, you need to hold your employers accountable and challenge them to push boundaries. Recreating the workplace is everyone's responsibility.

Sepideh Nasiri

A life-time advocate for women, diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Sepideh Nasiri is the CEO and founder of Women of Middle East & North Africa (MENA) In Technology. An award-winning serial entrepreneur with over 16 years of experience in the tech industry, Nasiri is an advocate for women, diversity and inclusion and her leadership is recognized globally.

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