By Melissa J. Anderson

Yesterday marked Catalyst‘s annual awards celebration to honor companies that are making progress in the advancement and retention of women. This year’s honorees included Kaiser Permanente, McDonald’s, and Time Warner.

Each of the winning companies was commended for its ongoing work to improve gender balance – as Julie S. Nugent, Senior Director, Research, and Chair, Catalyst Award Evaluation Committee, explained, the awards honor progress – not perfection. Plus, Nugent explained, winners of the award were careful to back up their success with metrics. “We do love our results, being a research organization,” she said.

Whether it was the growth of women on boards at Kaiser Permanente, an increase of women in senior management at McDonald’s, or an improvement in the retention of women at Time Warner, each of the companies had the numbers to show that their programs were working.

Diversity as a Business Booster

During the plenary session opening the conference, thee leaders from each company discussed the reasons their programs had been so successful. The panel included Diane Gage Lofgren, Senior Vice President, Brand Strategy, Communications and Public Relations, Kaiser Permanente;Tim Fenton, President – Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa, McDonald’s Corporation; and Lisa Garcia Quiroz, Senior Vice President, Corporate Responsibility, Time Warner, Inc.

In opening the conference, Catalyst’s senior vice president Julie Nugent explained that these companies show “diversity and inclusion is an important business imperative that deserves our attention, and it’s not just a nice thing to have.”

In fact each of the panelists touched upon this idea. The reason these programs were so successful, they said, was because gender diversity could be tied directly to business success.

For example, Lofgren mentioned explained that as a healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente had to be able to respond to the diverse needs of its community – no matter its ethnic or cultural background. Additionally, she said, women are traditionally the ones making the healthcare decisions within the household. It makes sense that the company would be made up of a larger percentage of women.

She said, “The workforce reflects the communities we serve. And they believe [in our commitment to diversity] because they see it in our senior leaders.”

Quiroz explained that the business case for getting more women in decision making roles at the company is obvious – a huge segment of Time Warner’s audience is women.

She also commented on how a company’s brand can speak to potential employees – including herself. “As a young Hispanic woman out of business school, I was immediately drawn to Time Inc.” Remembering how the Time Magazine on her mother’s coffee table appealed to her, she said, “A brand is a tremendously powerful too.” On the other hand, she said, if she hadn’t felt that the brand spoke to her, she wouldn’t have considered the job.

Building Effective Workforces

Additionally, Time Warner has seen employee retention rates improve significantly since implementing its women’s initiative. Quiroz inferred that keeping women engaged within the company was a big part of employee engagement overall. “Women are the canaries in the mine. If you keep women happy, your organization is happy.”

Fenton said that companies looking to implement diversity programs within their own companies should remember three things – first of all that it’s a business decision, second to have the mechanisms for accountability, and third, to build methods for success.

He explained how McDonald’s faces an interesting challenge in implementing its diversity program globally, as so many of the markets the company has entered are slow to warm to the idea of women’s leadership. “We’re not trying to change cultures,” he said. “So we made it a business initiative [worldwide]. If we can be known as the best place for women to work, what an advantage that would be for us in our workforce.”