Queen City Certified program helping local companies embrace gender equity

'It's the prudent thing to do'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-25 19:56:44-04

BLUE ASH, Ohio — Manufacturing isn’t exactly known for having a woman-powered workforce.

But Karen Kovach wasn’t at all surprised when Michelman Inc., the company where she works, decided to take part in Queen City Certified. It’s an employer certification and leadership program for gender equity in the workplace.

“The reason I came here two years ago was because of the values of Michelman more than anything else,” said Kovach, the company’s general counsel and leader of its new affinity group for women employees. “It is definitely part of the DNA of the company.”

The company wanted to learn where its policies and practices were supportive of women employees and where they weren’t and figured Queen City Certified could help, said Michelman CEO Steve Shifman.

Karen Kovach

“We’re not different than any other business in that we’re all fighting that proverbial war for talent,” Shifman said. “We believe this is a journey and will continue to shape this organization and workforce over a period of time.”

That’s what Queen City Certified is all about: Helping local businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies improve their policies and procedures to become more open, welcoming and fair.

“Our ultimate goal is to help organizations identify gender gaps in both policy and culture and then move them from insights to action,” said Nicole Armstrong, the founder and CEO of Queen City Certified. “It’s a great way for organizations to take a look at what they’re doing really well and look for opportunities for growth.”

So far, 20 businesses, nonprofit organizations and government departments have completed the training or are taking part in it now, Armstrong said.

Those include the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Graydon law firm, Urban Artifact brewery, Lighthouse Youth & Family Services and the city of Cincinnati’s departments of Human Resources and Transportation & Engineering.

“Certification is a visible symbol that an organization is committed to equity and creating an equitable workplace,” Armstrong said. “The organizations that participate have made a commitment.”

‘We’re on a long path’

Shifman said making the commitment was a no-brainer for Michelman.

The Blue Ash-based company manufactures and develops coatings and other materials for the packaging industry. It has 450 employees, with about half located in Greater Cincinnati and the other half around the world.

Michelman has been hiring more young employees and more women in recent years, Shifman said, and he wanted to make sure the company was “more intentional” about its diversity goals.

“As a scientific business, data matters to us,” he said. “We’re 70 years old this year, and we’re planning for the next 70 so we’re on a long path. So it starts with data. It starts with understanding where we are today.”

Michelman Inc.'s Blue Ash headquarters.

Queen City Certified helps participating organizations examine their policies, practices and pay structures to figure out employee satisfaction and where disparities exist between male and female workers.

The program has three certification levels.

Certified is for companies that are committed to having more equitable workplaces and have policies and practices in place that promote gender equity.

Silver certification indicates companies have met all the criteria of certified companies and also have high levels of satisfaction among employees of all genders.

Gold-level certification is for employers that excel in all of the areas that Queen City Certified examines: recruitment and interviewing practices; work-life support; training, mentorship and professional development; equal pay for comparable work; leadership and decision-making; and organizational culture.

All companies that go through the program develop two-year and four-year action plans for gender equity.

The program spans three months and requires the participation of two company leaders. Companies also have to take part in two one-on-one meetings, complete an assessment of their policies and practices and agree to conduct an anonymous survey of employees and an employee listening session.

When 'sir' or 'ma'am' can backfire

A training session in May included a discussion about gender norms.

The company leaders in attendance broke into groups and discussed how men and women can be perceived in the workplace.

“It’s like you’re not a woman if you’re strong,” one woman in attendance said. “People literally describe these women as manly.”

Luna Malbroux from Soul Bird Consulting in Cincinnati led the discussion about how those stereotypes can play out in the workplace.

Luna Malbroux of Soul Bird Consulting, with her back to the screen, leads a Queen City Certified training session in May 2019.

She then talked about gender identity and how the world has changed in the way people identify themselves and want to be addressed.

Malbroux urged the men and women in attendance not to assume a person’s gender and encouraged them to find out which personal pronouns a new employee or acquaintance prefers.

It can be difficult, she acknowledged, especially when trying to show someone respect.

“I grew up saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’” she said. “It’s important to be aware that there are other ways to show respect to someone other than immediately gendering them.”

Malbroux urged the company leaders in attendance to look online if they get confused about aspects of gender identity and how to address people at work.

“It’s important to do the research,” she said. “You can’t put that burden on people to educate.”

Research is an important part of the Queen City Certified process, Armstrong said after the class.

Businesses want data to back up any changes they make to their policies and practices, and the program is designed to provide that.

Nicole Armstrong

There’s also plenty of data to support the need for having a more inclusive and equitable workforce, Armstrong said, adding:

• About 60 percent of college graduates are women, and they make up a large portion of the workforce today;

• Research has shown that organizations that have greater diversity in terms of gender, race and ethnicity tend to be more profitable;

• And teams with more diversity are more innovative.

“Diverse teams can make workplaces more successful,” Armstrong said.

‘The prudent thing to do’

Michelman has found that to be true, Shifman said.

“When we have the most diverse group of people to solve a problem, in our experience, we come up with better ideas,” he said.

With operations around the world, the company has a very diverse workforce globally and wants to make sure it has a strong, diverse workforce here, he said.

Steve Shifman

“It starts with data and understanding where we are today,” Shifman said. “We believe this is a journey and will continue to shape this organization and workforce over time.”

The Queen City Certified data will help the company understand what it’s doing well and where it could make improvements, he said.

“Out of this, we’ll be able to build a strategy,” he said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do. But I also think from a business standpoint, it’s the prudent thing to do.”

Kovach said women at the company are excited that Michelman is taking part in the certification process.

As the company’s top lawyer, Kovach acknowledged that there is some risk in digging into company policies to find where there’s room for improvement.

“You’re trying to balance that risk against really what is the right thing to do,” she said. “And at Michelman, we always come out on the side of this is the right thing to do.”

Lab technicians at Michelman Inc.

Queen City Certified and The Women’s Fund are co-hosting an information session for employers or employees who are interested in learning more about the program. The session will be from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on July 2 at Paycor, 4811 Montgomery Road, Cincinnati. More information, including how to register, is available online.

Information about Queen City Certifiedand how to apply for the Fall session is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.