Hard Hat Culture Lauded for Being Inclusive of Women

By Pamela Babcock Mar 28, 2013

NEW YORK—“Sometimes it takes a hard hat to break the glass ceiling,” according to Alcoa Inc. CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. That may be a particularly apt description for the male-dominated industry in which he works, which is known for tough working conditions in refineries, smelters and factories.

Yet Alcoa was recognized recently for its work toward creating gender equality when it was one of three companies to receive a 2013 Catalyst Award for initiatives that advance women in the workplace. The Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever also received the award.

Despite Alcoa’s need to slash its global workforce 30 percent during the economic downturn from 2008 and 2012 that saw a 60 percent drop in aluminum prices, the percentage of women in executive roles grew from 15.8 percent to 18.8 percent. And the percentage of women in professional and plant management positions increased from 22.6 percent to 25.1 percent. During that same period, employee engagement rose from 52 percent to 70 percent, according to Catalyst award information.

The company’s initiative has helped attract and retain women at all levels in most of its businesses and regions, Catalyst said. The effort began in 2008 when Kleinfeld set new diversity goals and strategic priorities.

Speaking March 19, 2013, at the 2013 Catalyst Awards Conference, John D. “Jack” Bergen, vice president of corporate projects for Alcoa, offered a blunt assessment of the company’s diversity mindset up to that point.

“We thought we were OK,” said Bergen, who until May 2012 was vice president of HR for Alcoa. “We had all kinds of excuses for why we didn’t meet the goals of the Catalyst organization, and one of the reasons was we were complacent.” (In 2011, one Alcoa plant faced charges of discrimination in hiring practices; see SHRM Online coverage.)

In short, Alcoa was “the kind of place that men dominated and women avoided,” he said, until the company started making some changes.

Talent Management Components

Several diversity initiatives are now woven into Alcoa’s talent management processes to address recruiting, mentoring and sponsoring, leadership development, talent review, and succession planning.

Chrystiane Junqueira, director of human resources for Alcoa’s U.S. primary products, joined the company 21 years ago as an intern in Brazil.

She said that Alcoa’s talent management processes are standardized globally, which helps when studying the company’s HR processes and how it manages talent and gathers metrics and data. Here are some highlights:

Recruiting and hiring. Alcoa’s corporate goal is for 33 percent of candidate slates to be diverse (meaning they include women and U.S. minorities), although she noted some business units have pushed that number higher while other areas are lower.

To help with recruiting, the company increasingly sends female employees to college recruiting events and alumni events to be part of recruiting teams, Bergen added.

Leadership development. The company ensures that its leadership development program has “very robust programs and processes” so leaders will maintain an inclusive mindset, Junqueira said.

Succession planning. Through annual talent reviews, Alcoa has been able to accelerate development and growth of key leaders and to highlight major gaps, she added.

Affinity Groups’ Role

Alcoa’s diversity initiative is supported by the Alcoa Diversity & Inclusion Council, which oversees Alcoa’s diversity programs and affinity groups. The Alcoa Women’s Network, the Alcoa African Heritage Network and Employees at Alcoa for Gay and Lesbian Equality all work to encourage employee involvement in diversity across regions.

“There’s nothing that beats that groundswell that comes from the affinity groups and making sure that they become the change agents for the company,” Bergen said.

While the initiative has global strategies, its implementation is localized so it can be adapted to regional and operational contexts. For example, local HR teams rely on regional community development efforts and connections with local educational institutions to help with recruiting and professional development, Catalyst said.

Senior Leadership Support

Tone at the top is important, and Alcoa’s CEO, board of directors and top leaders are actively involved with, committed to, and accountable for the diversity initiative.

Gena Lovett, the company’s chief diversity officer, briefs the company’s board of directors—which is 33 percent female—frequently throughout the year.

The company links diversity goals to key leader compensation. Alcoa’s top 1,000 leaders are in the company’s bonus program, and 10 percent of their bonus is tied to whether they meet diversity goals, based on Catalyst guidelines, Bergen said.

The company also has made developing women into operational leadership positions a priority.

“Creating role models that can become role models for women and for men is very important,” Bergen said.

Woman Heads Iceland Plant

One such leader is Janne Sigurdsson, managing director of Alcoa Iceland. In 2012, Sigurdsson was named plant manager at Alcoa’s new Fjardaál aluminum smelter plant, which has about 500 employees. Sigurdsson began working for Alcoa in 2006 and had several community meetings before the plant opened.

At the first meeting, Sigurdsson said she was struck by “all the men in the room” and the community expectation that “we would be creating a place for males. From the very first day, it was very clear to us that we needed to do something different here,” Sigurdsson said, “because that was not the kind of company we wanted to make.”

Diversity was particularly important because of the area’s small talent pool. But Sigurdsson said she also wanted to create a culture of continuous learning and improvement, and didn’t think that would happen if the company hired “a lot of old farmers and fishermen.”

Each year, the plant gives an equality and diversity award to a woman and a man who both champion the cause of diversity. Today, 30 percent of the plant’s management team is women, she said.

Bergen said that’s higher than the company’s rate of female executives, but he noted that the Iceland plant started with a “clean slate” and didn’t have to tear down “the old barriers to advancement.”

Looking Ahead

Bergen said that in 2012, Alcoa saw “solid increases” for diversity across the company. Executive women received 37 percent of promotions while executive minorities made up 44 percent of hires. Meanwhile, women’s engagement was 4 percentage points higher than men’s.

Alcoa hopes to use the recognition that comes with the Catalyst award to attract even more women. But, Bergen admitted, advancing women is no longer just a numbers game. “It’s an inclusion game—this culture game.”

Lovett, perhaps, summed it up best. At Alcoa, she said, “diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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