“We hire the best”: addressing systemic barriers facing women in the workplace

Wyle Baoween
CEO & Senior Facilitator, HRx

“We’re not biased, we simply hire and promote the best.” Have you heard this statement before? If these decisions are truly based on merit, why are there almost as many CEOs in Fortune 500 companies that have the name John than all female CEOs combined? And why is the rate of promotions for women and other underrepresented groups well below that of men?

The answer is simple: organizations are not as meritocratic as we would like to think. Unconscious bias and systemic barriers exist for underrepresented groups including women. Systems and processes are built to serve a male-centric culture that has dominated business for hundreds of years. These systems are inherently biased and, by design, favour men and create barriers for women. Take, for example, the following processes:

Job postings: Men and women respond differently to job postings. Internal research at HP Inc. suggested that, unlike women, men apply for jobs even if they do not meet all the requirements.

Promotions: In most cases, the promotion process is highly subjective and heavily influenced by a likeability-competency trade-off bias that penalizes assertive women in positions of leadership.

Pay: The pay negotiation process creates barriers for women. A study where participants read the same script to negotiate their salaries concluded that people showed significantly more bias against women compared to men when negotiating salaries.

As you begin to recognize these and the many other barriers that women face, you can be certain that in many cases, it is not the “best” candidate who is rewarded but rather the person who the system serves the best.


HRx is a Canadian firm that provides consulting, training and analytics to build stronger, more inclusive organizations. We work with some of Canada’s largest employers, specializing in male-dominated industries such as technology and resources, to provide subject matter expertise on diversity and inclusion. Organizations use HRx as an extension of their team, and in this capacity, we have seen several common slip-ups that impact an organization’s ability to tackle systemic bias to make meaningful and sustainable change. These include:

1. Jumping into action

One of the most common mistakes we see organizations make is jumping into action without really understanding the issue. Often, companies go through an unconscious bias training session and the next thing they do is start implementing programs to support women without spending the time to collect data, listen to their employees and understand their unique barriers and opportunities.

2. Copy/paste initiatives

Another mistake we see companies make is attempting to implement initiatives from other companies or best practices that they heard about at a conference, and expecting the same results. The problem here is that each organization has its unique culture and challenges. Truly, each organization is at a different stage of their journey and simply recreating initiatives without thinking through the unique challenges of implementation at their own organization will not create sustainable change.

3. Initiative overload

Lastly, but probably most commonly, organizations get excited about addressing gender inequality and try to tackle many issues at once. While the intent is admirable, ad-hoc, uncoordinated initiatives are often ineffective at bringing about change. It can also be a big strain on resources which never looks good when you are trying to get people on-board.

Women inclusive team

When we look at organizations that have been successful in re-engineering their processes and systems, we find that data has played a key role. Quantitative data (i.e. numbers from recruitment, promotions, retention, pay) shows what diversity barriers the organization is facing. Qualitative data (i.e. people’s experiences and stories collected from interviews and focus groups) explains why these barriers exist. Both sets of data are important to plan and execute systemic changes.

There are several benefits to collecting data at the beginning of your organization’s journey to advance diversity and inclusion. These include:

1. Leadership buy-in

Data helps build a strong evidence-based analysis to highlight the issues. This leaves little room for skeptics who question the presence of gender inequalities in their organizations.

2. Focused and coordinated approach

Data identifies which issues to tackle first. For example, looking at recruitment data we can determine if the issue is that women are not applying or if the issue is that women are not passing the interview stage. This is also true for other processes such as advancement and pay.

3. Maximize resources

Data helps target efforts to the areas that will generate the greatest impact. This is particularly important for organizations that are not resourced for a diversity and inclusion team (true for more than 90% of companies).

4. Show progress

Collecting data gives organizations a baseline for measuring progress and rerouting where needed. After a long period of talking about gender equity without visible results, organizations can experience “diversity and inclusion fatigue” where employees start to lose trust in their leadership commitment to diversity and inclusion.

For all of us leading the way to gender equity, it is important to question the statement “we hire the best” and to consider the fairness of the systems around us. It is important to understand that systemic changes are the most effective and sustainable way to address gender inequality and to start by collecting data to make meaningful change.

This article was adapted from a talk given at the We for She conference held in Vancouver, Canada, November 2018.

Wyle Baoween, CEO & Senior Facilitator, HRx

Wyle Baoween

CEO & Senior Facilitator, HRx

Wyle works with executives, senior leaders and their teams to build diverse and inclusive organizations.

As CEO of HRx, Wyle has worked with some of Canada’s largest employers and has been recognized as one of Canada’s thought leaders in diversity and inclusion for the solutions he has developed and re-engineered, including technology for assessing unconscious bias, the Diversity and Inclusion Culture Change Curve, and data analytics for diversity and inclusion.

Wyle is an Engineer, with an MBA and is a certified Project Management Professional. He is a Chair for the Vancouver Board of Trade’s Committee for Women’s Leadership and an Ambassador for the University of Victoria’s Business School.

HRx | LinkedIn

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