Ursula Mead: How measurement drives change

Ursula Mead discusses InHerSight, how it measures how supportive of women companies are and how the model promises to change the work environment for good.

Ursula Mead

Ursula Mead says the idea for InHerSight, an employer review platform that scores organisations on their degree of support for women, based on individuals’ ratings, came from TripAdvisor.

The holiday rating device that transformed the travel industry has become the unlikely model for what might just be a huge catalyst for change in corporate governance and behaviour.

Mead, who was working in customer strategy at consumer finance company Motley Fool when she came up with the idea, says: ‘We were inspired by ratings platforms like TripAdvisor – we think they are a great model.

‘In particular, we wanted to create something that not only helped women find fantastic workplaces, but also helped make those workplaces even better. We knew women and employers alike needed this kind of information, but none of the existing employer review platforms were providing it.’

Uncovering problems

A major driver for setting up InHerSight, was ‘my passionate and sometimes stubborn belief in the power of measurement to surface problems and drive solutions, and the feeling that we did not yet have the information we needed to really know what it was like for women in the workplace’, says Mead.

‘We needed a new way to measure and amplify the combined experiences of individual working women – something high-level labour reports, gossip from our friends or isolated scandals in the news just cannot do.’

She is of course referring to the continual drip feed of stories of politicians, executives and media figures being named in allegations of sexual harassment that have surfaced since dozens of woman lodged accusations of impropriety against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“Every woman is different and every workplace is different, and we all face our unique challenges and opportunities as we navigate our lives and careers”

Mead says the recent coverage of sexual harassment has made it clear that safety is still a massive challenge for many women in and outside of the workplace.

‘In early 2017, we introduced a ratings category that measures how well companies respond to things like sexual harassment. What we have learned is that this company responsiveness category is the second most important driver of a woman’s overall satisfaction with her employer – more than three times as powerful as the company’s paid time off policies. That is huge,’ she says.

She adds that the biggest driver of women’s overall satisfaction at work is access to equal opportunities.

‘But the truth is, every woman is different and every workplace is different, and we all face our unique challenges and opportunities as we navigate our lives and careers. This is why we have worked hard to create an inclusive platform that encompasses the many different ways we define success and the different types of support we need at work,’ she says.

Toxic workplaces

Although InHerSight was launched in 2013, Mead says she had been stewing on the concept since Anne Marie Slaughter’s ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ article was published in The Atlantic magazine the year before.

‘We spent some time beta-testing the idea and trying out different ratings categories, and we spoke to countless women who were eager to share their experiences with us,’ she says.

Mead says the recent sexual harassment allegations have created more awareness among women that it is vitally important to research employers and workplaces to avoid toxic and even dangerous ones.

‘As someone who started a platform focused on sharing women’s experiences in an honest and transparent way, I am obviously thrilled by the increased transparency and accountability around sexual harassment,’ she says.

‘It is past time that society be taken to task for its complacency around this kind of abuse, and I am proud of the women who have spoken up and shared their stories.’

She says that earlier this year there were many women switching on to the idea that not all workplaces are equal in the context of the Equal Pay Day coverage. And in 2016, when the conversation was focused on the lack of parental leave, she says a lot of women discovered InHerSight as they looked for resources to evaluate companies’ maternity and adoptive leave policies.

‘The news and media are very powerful in driving awareness of the issues women still face every day at work and we are proud to be a resource that can really help women navigate a lot of those challenges,’ she says.

Holding companies accountable

One major outcome of the launch of InHerSight, which is focused on the US – although it receives ratings on employers around the world – is that employers are recognising the importance of getting a positive rating.

‘New companies reach out to us nearly every day and I am happy to say that a vast majority of them get it before we even speak to them. They know why we do what we do, and they understand how the data we are collecting can help them improve and become more competitive for female talent,’ she says.

‘We used to begin many of our conversations with companies with an overview of the benefits of a diverse, inclusive workforce, but at this point most of the people we speak to – from CEOs to HR managers to recruiters – are already aware of the multiple studies that have made the case for an engaged, happy female workforce,’ says Mead.

“By creating more awareness around what women are experiencing in the workplace, I believe we are switching people on to the broader issues”

Mead says there are differing views on whether genuine change is taking place within companies.

She says the current climate is causing many companies to examine their cultures and think hard about the kinds of environments they want to build, but also what kinds of environments are going to lead to the most successful outcomes.

‘We talk to companies regularly who are committed to and working toward measuring and tracking their progress on both gender diversity and on providing environments where women feel they are treated as equals,’ she says.

But she stresses that on the other hand, the current climate can also lead to a lot of lip service and even a feeling that because it has been talked about it must be solved.

‘There is a lot of talk out there – a lot of pledging, head-nodding, and toasting. It is the thing to do right now. But we are out here measuring what is changing and happening, because that is what really matters. That is why the information women share with us at InHerSight is so valuable – it holds companies accountable and rewards action, not talk.’

Switching people on

Away from individual employers, there are huge societal gains from female talent being channelled the right way, says Mead. ‘The economic case for empowering women at work has been established – when women are working at their full potential, economies grow.’

There is also a wider benefit from greater understanding of the problems faced by women, says Mead.

‘Awareness is a very powerful thing and by creating more awareness around what women are experiencing in the workplace, and how that may differ from the experiences of their male counterparts, I believe we are switching people on to the broader issues that feed into these workplace challenges.’

Although InHerSight focused on how supportive companies are of women, the ratings approach could be used to measure wider corporate governance and behaviour – identifying clear leaders and laggards.

‘There are definitely other segments of the working population that could benefit from something like InHerSight,’ says Mead. ‘While our focus is currently still on women, we are looking at other ways to put our data to work to expand our reach and we collect a lot of powerful data already to grow our impact.’

Interview by Lawrie Holmes, a financial journalist and contributor to Governance and Compliance

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