Giving opportunities to women leaders in particular helps your clientele understand that you’re serious about diversity inclusion

Laura Birk is the Vice President of Human Resources for Barilla America where she has been for over 11 years. Birk is responsible for all the talent management and people processes supporting the Americas business which includes the Canada, U.S., Mexico and Brazil. She is a Board Member for the company, and has the pleasure to serve over 500 employees in the Americas.


Christopher P. Skroupa: What do you do at Barilla America that influences gender diversity to generate value?

Laura Birk: As you may know, we have appointed our second female Chief Diversity Officer on our Global Diversity and Inclusion board. We’ve put a governance model in action, globally, to help move our diversity and inclusion initiatives forward. Also, during the last couple of years, 100% of our Corporate employees completed diversity and inclusion training.

Recently, the Human Rights Campaign published their Corporate Equality Index, and we’re really proud to announce that we’ve received this honor for four years in a row, receiving a perfect score. As stated by The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, criteria is measured on “non-discrimination policies across business entities; equitable benefits for LGBTQ workers and their families; internal education and accountability metrics to promote LGBTQ inclusion competency; and public commitment to LGBTQ equality.” There were more than 600 companies included in the index, and we’re really honored to be amongst all of the companies.

We’ve also launched three employee resource groups (ERGs) here in the U.S., and recently our CEO Claudio Colzani signed the CEO Action and D&I pledge, which aims to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace. He was amongst the several hundred executives that signed the pledge.

Skroupa: Among all of these accomplishments, what are some of the challenges that either you or Barilla America has faced in order to accomplish these goals?

Birk: Tying back to the employee resource groups, we have one for the LGBTQ community and allies, one for both African-American and Latino diversity and inclusion, and the final one is on gender balance & equality challenges. One challenge that certainly cuts across all of those resource groups is the building of foundational education. This includes awareness and employee involvement. Sustaining both of those former concepts is really important so that the business impact is also sustained.

It’s a challenge because you’re building capabilities, you’re building leadership skills within these ERGs, and you really want to make sure that they will have a business impact. In fact, 95% of employees reporting having the flexibility they need to manage work and personal life (2015 internal Barilla America survey). That’s really why they’re established in the first place.   

What’s reassuring, from our perspective, is that they’re all volunteers. Whether it’s a leader or a member from the employee resource group, they’re all contributing in addition to doing their day jobs. What you always hope to see is that people are passionate about their cultures.

They already get the intuitiveness of the business impact, you don’t have to explain it to them. They’re out trying to explain their goals for the business, but unfortunately the last challenge is that not everyone sees the line of sight between the employee resource group and the business.

They’re in the constant recruiting space, and demonstrating that they can add value to the business. As a volunteer they have to be passionate about what they’re promoting, otherwise it doesn’t sustain itself.

Skroupa: What advice can you give to corporate executives to help generate value through gender diversity in their own companies?

Birk: You have to really push. You have to push in making sure that you’re giving opportunities and making gender specific examples. You have to make sure that you’re giving opportunities to leaders, and in particular women leaders, to do the job.

In the U.S. women make up 38% of our executive board members. When I look at North and South America the number is about 36%, but that doesn’t happen by accident. It can’t happen without seeking the best leaders and taking risks and putting bets on them and your company by giving them the job.

You have to be intentional in a lot, if not all, of your activities for gender diversity and inclusion.

Birk will be a panelist for the discussion Chief Diversity Officer: Influencer, Leader and Change Agent at the Gender Equality in the C-Suite & Boardroom conference on November 15-16 in Chicago, Illinois.

Originally published on Forbes.com. More articles by Christopher Skroupa on his Forbes column.