Why An Ethnographic Approach?

Anyone who's worked at more than one company knows that each workplace has its own culture and atmosphere. Even with similar policies and structures in place, the experience in one workplace can vary wildly from the experience in another. Add that to the fact that most women look for and need very different things out of work than men do, and it becomes clear that just looking at a checklist of policies and benefits doesn't tell the full story of an employee's experience at a company. The GO Certification addresses this problem.

When my first child was born, for example, I pumped and stored milk in a basement closet equipped with a folding chair and a mini fridge. I recently visited a workplace that had a dedicated room right off of the main bullpen area, equipped with rocking lounge chairs, a changing table should baby be in the office that day, a sink and fridge. Both companies can claim they have lactation facilities on paper, but the experiences for the actual employees couldn't be more different. 

Similarly, most women have sat in meetings where ideas they've stated have been at first ignored but then restated and claimed by a male colleague. Meeting dynamics such as this cannot though be represented in a quantitative data summary. Workplace culture, and specifically gender culture, is perceived differently by each sex, affected by unconscious bias, and shaped by generations of shoehorning women into male competitive models. Trained independent assessors, we believe, observing gender interactions are the best mechanism for assuring that workplace cultures are as healthy as they aspire to be.

At the Seneca Council, we believe that third-party, independent assessments are the best way to assure that companies are not sabotaging their own policies by overlooking the element of human interaction and real lived experience. Independent assessments offer an objective check on whether policies and benefits are living up to their promise, or are simply lip service. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains in her book Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, it is more important to women that the human elements of workplace interactions are rewarding and satisfying to them. A study by International Survey Research revealed that men's top two drivers at work are career advancement (20 percent) and financial rewards (10 percent), while for women the top two drivers are working with people they respect at work (14 percent) and creating a quality product (10 percent). Career advancement and financial rewards do not even make it into the top four picks by women in this study, suggesting that women emphasize values and behaviors in their evaluation of their work experience, while men emphasize compensation and benefits. This distinction is key to understanding why an ethnographic approach to assessing workplaces is essential to evaluating the experience through a female employee's eyes.

It is no longer good enough to have a paid maternity policy on the list of company benefits (even though having one is a good start and more than many companies). Does the new mother feel ostracized for taking time off? Do male colleagues wonder why she got a free vacation? Is she passed over for promotion after returning? Do her male colleagues also take advantage of the company's paternity leave, or is that just not done? These are the kinds of emotional but highly important questions the Seneca Council asks as we help companies recruit, retain and maximize the potential of both women and men. 

This post was also published on LinkedIn on January 25, 2017.