Workforce Gender Equity & Diversity

Diverse workforce meeting with woman at front of board room using post-it notes.

By Dayna Sarver, Redevelopment Resources


Municipalities are struggling to attract new workforce talent as the existing institutional knowledge is nearing retirement. It may be even more difficult if there is a lack of diversity on their existing staff to mentor young professionals. Additionally, municipalities, banks, real estate developers, utilities, etc. all have to work together for a development project to come to fruition. This emphasizes the importance of being aware of how our actions and words impact our working relationships. Finally, as Economic Development professionals workforce talent retention and attraction may once again become a hot topic post-COVID-19. As part of the services practitioners provide to local firms, encouraging them to look at the diversity of their workforce may become increasingly important to the longevity of the firm.

As a white, married, heterosexual woman, I recognize that my experience in a male-dominated industry is narrow compared to others from different racial groups, gender identities, and abilities who experience similar and worse challenges/behaviors/discrimination. Based on what experience I do have, organizations looking to further their workforce talent attraction and retention goals should pluck the following low-hanging fruit:

  1. Achieve personal and organizational awareness
  2. Offer mentorship
  3. Create a culture of healthy dialog
  4. Compare compensation within the commuter-shed
  5. Collaborate on talent attraction efforts

Achieve personal awareness

I remember my first professional meeting with a real estate developer from Chicago.  He was 45 minutes late and frazzled.  I asked him if I could get him something to drink before we sat down.  He looked me up and down and asked for coffee. He didn’t seem to need any additional caffeine, but I complied. When I brought the coffee back to him, he asked me to leave the conference room so he could make a phone call while he waited for my boss, a man, to return from closing a deal. I was irked that he seemed to think that I was not in the position to be discussing potential development plans, but I had only been at the job for two weeks and didn’t want to blow it. So, yet again, I complied. 

Fortunately, supportive male co-workers encouraged me to not spend any more time with him. They were as offended as I was. Unfortunately, for him and other women he meets, I lacked the courage to confront him about his behavior assuming that in doing so, he would change.

Questions for personal reflection:

  • What assumptions do I make when meeting with someone for the first time that may be erroneous?
  • How do I respond when confronted with new information that challenges my previous assumptions?
  • Do I validate or dismiss grievances shared by coworkers?
  • Am I giving credit where credit is due? E.g. if a team member proposes a brilliant idea, am I taking credit for it or am I affirming their creativity?
  • Do I speak up when dominant voices speak over, interrupt, disrespect or make insensitive comments about non-dominate social groups?
  • Are we addressing both covert and overt forms of discrimination when they happen by taking immediate action?

Achieve organizational awareness

My next meeting was with the committee that oversaw the revolving loan fund for the downtown. I was the only woman at the table surrounded by men with salt and pepper hair. Some had more salt than pepper. At the time, I had no idea how commercial lending worked or what the underwriting criteria were. I was also an outsider among colleagues and friends, some who had worked together for decades.  Given my previous experience, one could imagine my apprehension to make a proposal to disburse limited funds. Stress sweat is a real thing! These men, however, warmly welcomed me and eagerly shared their knowledge of the industry.

Questions for your organization to consider:

  • How are we helping our existing workforce talent reach their personal and professional goals?
  • How is institutional knowledge disbursed throughout our organization?
  • Does our organization have a culture of affirmation or critique? e.g. praise for how they handled a tough customer vs. what mistakes were made.
  • Have potential leaders been identified and how are we developing them?

Offer mentorship

In addition to professional development, time spent mentoring young professionals is exceedingly valuable.  In one organization I was a part of, this occurred organically post a public meeting, development proposal, etc. The senior managers would loiter in cube land or perch themselves on a file cabinet to debrief the meeting. They shared their institutional knowledge, past experiences, best practices and loads of encouragement. Mentor relationships like this does not happen organically in all organizations. Furthermore, in organizations where it does happen organically, that may not be the case for women and racial minorities. Additionally, both gender and racial diversity within the management team may provide the opportunity for staff to effectively mentor younger/new staff who see themselves reflected in management and executive positions.

One manager also provided introductions at networking events with other professionals which expanded my professional mentoring net. (One such contact helped facilitate my current employment with Redevelopment Resources.) His accolades during the introductions, while embarrassing for a Midwesterner, affirmed my credibility to the new contact. Hearing my manager affirm my work publicly as well as in the office, strengthened my confidence and work-place satisfaction.

Healthy Dialog:

Within the Organization

A work-place culture that can discuss hard topics, like equity, together with mentorship strengthens talented voices. Within the first six months of working for a municipality, my coworkers and I were required to participate in an annual diversity training.  (The training is required as part of the municipality’s insurance agreement with the carrier.) Rather than sitting in rows with someone lecturing to us, the facilitator arranged the chairs in a circle for a more discussion-based approach.  There were some hard conversations that took place, but given proper ground-rules, the response was positive and rewarded honest dialog that continued after the training. Conversely, I participated in a different organization that was also required to attend the same training. My perception of the results of that training were that it was simply an exercise to fulfill an annual requirement, but no further meaningful dialog occurred. 

Furthermore, it also helped me to develop friendships with other women in male-dominated departments (like the planning, public works and transportation departments).  More experienced in navigating gender diversity in the workplace, they became my support group. We met regularly for lunch and the conversation primarily revolved around less intense topics of family and pets. Since we had spent considerable amounts of time together this paved the way for those challenging work-place conversations no one is immune to.

Within the Community

Communities should engage stakeholders in a dialog that strategically identifies and advances diversity and inclusion goals of the organization or community.  Ensure that there are multiple disciplines and representatives of various non-dominant social groups at the table with decision-making authority. Your community or organization may want to hire an experienced facilitator to help set boundaries and guide the conversation. While there are no “stupid” questions, there can be awkward and insensitive ones. Experienced facilitators can extract the intention of the question being asked and teach the group why what they said can have a negative impact on the very issues they’re discussing.”

Workforce Compensation

Compare compensation within the commuter-shed

So, your organization is already progressing with difficult conversations, developing initiatives and investing in the existing workforce, but you’re still having a difficult time attracting talent. It may be time to examine the compensation of other firms within an hour commute.  The talent pool isn’t as mobile as one might assume for a number of reasons.  For example, parents of middle school and high school students may not want to pull their kids out of the school district that they’ve developed roots in, a family member needs more immediate access to specialized medical clinics, or the location of a partner’s employer may limit mobility options.

Some municipal employers base their compensation rates on similar sized communities within the state, however, it may be more prudent for these municipalities to look at similar sized communities within their region.  If the talent isn’t going to change their residency, they will shop around for the highest bidder within a desired commute. 

Compare compensation within the Organization

Organizations should also review their payrolls for wage equity for non-dominant social groups. Since 2015, Salesforce has invested $10.3 million to ensure pay equity. Companies with high levels of racial diversity (25% or more) have been found to have mean revenues that were nearly 15.5 times higher than those with low levels of racial diversity (less than 10%). (Check out last month’s blog.)[1]  That the same study found that workforce’s with high levels of gender diversity (45% or more) have been found to have mean revenues that were over 14 times higher than those with low levels of gender diversity (less than 20%).[2]  Some questions to prepare for a pay equity analysis include the following:

  • Do wage gaps exist that cannot be explained by education and experience?
  • Are there any differences in opportunities for advancement?

For more information on conducting a pay equity analysis check out PayScale.

Collaborate on workforce talent attraction efforts

Economic Development professionals need to also conduct their business retention and expansion visits with the human resources directors of local firms to strategize creative methods of addressing the workforce talent attraction and retention issues. By discussing their labor force needs, creative solutions can be developed. For example, there may be firms that furlough their labor force with compatible skills during alternating times of the year. It may be advantageous for these firms to work together to share the same labor pool. 

Additionally, by working with regional employers, municipalities, utilities and workforce development boards, job opportunities and the communities within which they are located can be marketed in a centralized location. As previously pointed out, prospective employees have multiple needs that will be factored into their decision-making process. These talented individuals will be conducting internet searches as part of their research which will likely include real estate availability, cost of living, school systems, community organizations, recreational opportunities, etc. One example of this is  This jobs portal provides opportunities for visitors to find job postings, upload the resume of an accompanying spouse, arrange a customized tour of the community, and much more.


Lessons I’ve learned in assisting local firms in their efforts to attract and retain diverse talent include encouraging workplace cultures in which consistent, healthy dialog and mentorship are a part of the organizational fabric; regional approaches to comparing compensation rates; and collaborating with other economic development organizations to attract talent. This list is by no means comprehensive and is merely a personal reflection from the field meant to inspire further dialog and creativity.

[1] Herring, Cedric. Is Diversity Still a Good Thing?. 82 American Sociological Review. 868, 871

[2] Carter, Jennifer, et al. (2019). Economics of Diversity. Intellectual Property Owner’s Assocation. Pg. 2. Retrieved from:

The Importance of the Community Welcome Mat

Dayna Sarver, Development Specialist


The #1 challenge local employers shared with me before COVID-19 was their ability to attract and retain talent with the skills needed to grow the business. In fact, the private sector is keenly aware of the need for diverse talent. Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between gender/racial diversity and business performance.[1] Companies with high levels of racial diversity had average revenues that were nearly 15.5 times higher than those with low levels of racial diversity.[2] This is because diverse talent provides a broader understanding of customer needs and desires. As a result, innovation increases, the quality of decision making improves, employee satisfaction improves, and the company’s global image improves. (Not to mention that it is the socially responsible thing to do.)

Other challenges employers shared related to talent attraction and retention included access to public transportation and affordable housing. Employers are looking for ways to capture all of the available workforce and housing that supports them.  This is not simply an urban or suburban problem.  In fact, COVID-19 has created a market disruption that may accelerate growth in more rural areas which will soon need to be addressing these issues as well.

A self-evaluation of how well communities are welcoming the varieties of talent that their businesses are trying to attract would be beneficial.  From our perspective, evaluating housing affordability, transportation access, and the presence of a forum for community dialog is the low hanging fruit for a community to put out the welcome mat.

Housing Affordability

Affordable Housing Definitions & Components

If “the occupant(s) is/are paying no more than thirty percent (30%) of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities,” a housing unit is affordable. Overall affordability analyzes the housing stock within a municipality and whether the median household can afford a median‐priced unit.

There are two components to “affordable housing”:

  • Subsidized housing is when a government program, such as the housing tax credit program, reduces the rent/price, or owned by a non-profit or government agency. There are typically some restrictions on the eligibility of the tenant.
  • “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing” (NOAH) are older, smaller, or lower quality dwelling units that are affordable without subsidies.

Housing Programs

Housing Tax Credit developments must remain affordable for a 30-year period. Additionally, these developments must also meet one of two thresholds:

  • At least 20% of all units in a development must be reserved for households at or below 50% of area median income (AMI), OR
  • At least 40% of all units must be reserved for households at or below 60% of AMI.[3]


Housing affordability is not only a function of the current housing supply, but also housing demand. Housing demand is a function of income, employment and household growth within a region due to employee commuting patterns. Wisconsin cities and villages with populations of 10,000 or more are required to prepare an annual Housing Affordability Report on the city or village’s implementation of and possible improvements to the housing element in the comprehensive plan. While this report is currently required for communities of a certain size, COVID-19 has created a market disruption that may accelerate growth in more rural areas. It could be valuable for communities of any size to evaluate their current housing stock with forecasted housing demand for all income levels.

Key stakeholders within a region may benefit from having an annual summit to discuss housing topics. Possible discussion topics include: obstacles to developing affordable housing, trends in consumer preferences, range of housing choices, consumer feedback, and the community’s ability to meet this forecasted housing demand.


Missing Middle housing is a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units that fit within the context of the neighborhood, are walkable to/from amenities, and have access to public transportation. Missing middle could be defined as “attached townhouses, duplexes, triplexes or quads, and cottage clusters.”

Here are few ideas to implement missing middle housing:

  1. Allow for more density in residential subdivisions with smaller lot sizes that still meet the public safety setback requirements.
  2. Allow “missing middle” housing types in at least one, if not many, residential zoning district as a permitted use by-right.
  3. Incentivize workforce housing development by providing density bonuses for workforce housing projects.

Transportation Access

Housing costs are only one part of the affordable living equation. Households incur varying amounts of transportation costs depending on where they live, work, and play. Location efficient neighborhoods with lower transportation costs tend to be denser, mixed-use neighborhoods with convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities. The H+T Index offers an expanded view of affordability. It combines housing and transportation costs. Therefore, the index benchmark of affordability is no more than 45% of household income. The key takeaway is that employment centers and neighborhoods should be developed as location-efficient places.

An evaluation of the location of a potential workforce, their transportation needs, and the hours of operation within industry employment clusters is recommended. It will help facilitate conversations and develop implementation strategies with key stakeholders.


  • Analyze the costs and benefits of creating or extending public transportation services.
  • Create or contract for a vanpool service. Vanpools are groups of 8 to 15 commuters sharing their ride to work in a passenger van. The van is owned, insured and serviced by a public or private entity. Passengers share operating costs by paying a fare.[4] Alternatively, participation in the program may be incentivized by their employer. The costs of the program may be negotiated between the private and public sector.

Welcome Committee

A committee with stakeholders from multiple disciplines and representatives of various protected classes would provide a forum for a continual dialog regarding the issues of the day, housing development needs, and any challenges certain communities face. This committee may develop metrics for strategically evaluating progress, provide input for programs and policies to the governing board, and educate constituents about the collective decision-making process. The City of Elk Grove in California and City of Warrensburg, MO are a couple of examples of communities with such committees.

Roles & Goals

Such a committee should have a specific role and set of goals for the community. Example roles and goals a committee could pursue include:

  • Educating the public about community initiatives
  • Collaborative decision making and/or mediator for community issues that present competing priorities
  • Act as an organizing body or collaborator for various efforts throughout the community
  • Hold municipality/community accountable to its goals


Collaborating with the school district to communicate actions, measures, and needs within the community is one example of partnering with an outside entity. The school district is an excellent starting point and a good resource in understanding the various values represented by the student body and the perception of the schools in your community are an important factor in attracting talent. Some communities host events celebrating their community’s heritage. Alternatively, other communities invite various ethnic groups to showcase their cultures either all together in a multicultural showcase or as separate events. These types of events provide an opportunity for an open dialog within a community about the culture’s history, influence, and present issues. It facilitates common understanding and builds trust.

Additionally, some communities have opened the conversation by inviting community members to ask the questions they are perhaps afraid to voice, issued public statements of community inclusion and events to promote community healing.  One such example, is the City of Sun Prairie, WI.  


COVID-19 has created a market disruption. Therefore, should the remote work trend stick, rural communities may see an increased interest of housing developers and consumers looking for less congested, welcoming live-work options. As community economic developers, we believe that all communities would benefit from evaluating their “welcome mat.” This evaluation should include the following:

  • Assessing housing affordability for a variety of income levels and consumer preferences
  • Transportation access for those units,
  • The presence of a forum for community dialog.


[1] Note: Correlation means that two things are related, however, it is unclear whether one causes the other.

[2] Herring, Cedric. Is Diversity Still a Good Thing?. 82 American Sociological Review. Pgs. 868, 871

[3] WHEDA. Housing Tax Credits. (n.d.) Retrieved from:

[4] The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one example of a vanpool program:

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