A seal of approval for corporate gender equality


(istock)

Companies that meet environmental standards like to tout their LEED certifications. Businesses that practice socially conscious capitalism proudly show off their B Corp designations.

And now, a small but growing number of companies that promote gender equality are going after their own third-party stamp of approval.

On Tuesday, L'Oreal USA announced that it is the first company in America to receive the EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality) certification, which recognizes companies for their gender practices. This makes it the sixth company around the globe to be certified — others include the Swiss business units of Ikea and Deloitte and the Mexican bank C0mpartamos Banco. And another 60 organizations are going through the process, says Aniela Unguresan, one of EDGE's co-founders.

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Unguresan and Nicole Schwab (whose father is World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab) officially launched EDGE in 2011 at Davos. Unguresan sees the certification as useful for companies that want to tout their gender-equality commitment to employees as well as to consumers, who increasingly look to buy from companies with business practices they respect.

But Unguresan also sees it as helpful for investors, who are becoming more and more interested in data that show a better gender mix on the board and on management teams can lead to high performance, less volatility and better priced mergers. "A lot of companies say 'we’re committed to this,'" Unguresan says. "But increasingly there's a need to have a third party, independent party, saying their commitment is genuine."

Companies looking to become certified work with EDGE's commercial arm, EDGE Strategy, to complete an online assessment. It includes an employee survey, a questionnaire about company policies and practices, and the sharing of data on measures such as board composition, management diversity and worker pay. Companies can then hire EDGE Strategy to consult with them on needed improvements and help them prepare for certification. Finally, they go through an audit with a third-party firm and, if approved, are awarded the designation through an approved certification body.

EDGE does not make a full list of the criteria needed for certification public on its Web site, yet Unguresan did share some of the details of how companies are graded. The certification examines five broad areas: pay equity, how men and women are recruited and promoted, the equality of leadership development training and sponsorship, what flexible work policies and practices are in place, and the overall company culture. Do policies ensure men and women have equal access to critical jobs? Does the language in recruitment materials appeal to both genders? Is the company making active efforts to encourage men, not just women, to take advantage of flexible work programs?

While there are some concrete metrics — for instance, EDGE's standard for board composition is that each gender must have at least 30 percent representation in order to have a real voice — the certification also places a special focus on retention. At the junior management level, for example, it doesn't set an absolute level for gender makeup but looks at how well each company is retaining those young managers from year to year.

Similarly, it asks each company about their benefits and policies, such as maternity-leave programs. Yet rather than comparing how many paid weeks each company offers, it looks at how many of the women who take maternity leave and return are still at the company a year later. "If they make the choice to come back and they’re not there 12 months after they made that decision, it means the environment is not there to help them cope with their new roles as new parents," Unguresan says.

It's not clear when, or if, consumers might see the certification on the products they buy.

Angela Guy, the senior vice president of diversity and inclusion for L'Oreal USA, says she can't say whether L'Oreal will start putting the EDGE seal on lipstick packaging or shampoo bottles. The most important audience for the company to reach with this commitment, she says, will be internal employees and potential recruits. "We want our consumers to see L'Oreal as a great place to work. We know this certification validates the work we're doing is right and that we're committed to gender equality."

Unguresan's hope is that EDGE becomes not only something companies want to show off on their packaging, their recruitment materials or their annual reports, but something that has a broader impact on the number of women in leadership positions. "First, we need to get to the critical mass where having this certification seal becomes a competitive advantage," she says. "Second will be when not having it is a competitive disadvantage."

Read also:

Barclays joins the bet on women-led firms

Creating a class of do-good companies

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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