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How the Best Workplaces for Women elevate women on the margins

Creating a great place to work for women is personal for Stephanie Doliveira.

Doliveira, vice president of human resources at convenience store chain Sheetz, was sexually harassed while working as a server at a restaurant when she was 16.

The experience prompted her to go to law school with a vision of helping organizations prevent the harassment of other women. After a stint at a law firm, Doliveira joined Sheetz in the human resources department.

After her 20-year career at Sheetz, one of the things she’s proudest of is the company’s safe, inclusive environment for women. This includes zero-tolerance for harassment, an anonymous hotline to report incidents, and an employee relations team in HR that listens to and investigates team member complaints.

Recently, Doliveira and her team offered a new form of assistance to their 23,000 employees—both male and female. Just prior to the COVID pandemic, the company launched a domestic abuse awareness training program to help Sheetz managers identify signs that someone is in an unsafe living arrangement.

“We were finding out more and more female employees were in a bad situation,” Doliveira says. “We were having employees come to us and say, ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I can’t come to work.’”

Stephanie Doliveira, vice president of human resources at convenience store chain Sheetz.

The fact that female employees felt safe enough to speak with their bosses about domestic abuse speaks volumes about the level of trust in the Sheetz culture. And sadly, what Sheetz leaders were hearing about dangerous conditions at home was part of a wider trend.

Domestic violence incidents increased by 8.1% in the U.S. after pandemic stay-at-home orders were imposed, according to an analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy advising group.

As part of its anti-domestic abuse initiative, Sheetz offers counseling and emergency relief funds. At least one Sheetz employee has used the money to get to a safer place.

The Fortune Best Workplaces for Women in 2021

With its commitment to listening to employees and creating a secure, welcoming culture for all employees, it’s not a surprise Sheetz earned a spot on the Fortune Best Workplaces for Women™ list in 2021.

Global company culture and employee experience firm Great Place to Work® just announced the list in partnership with Fortune. Hilton ranked first on the list in the large company category, followed by No. 2 American Express, No. 3 Bank of America, and No. 4 New American Funding.

In the small- and medium-size company category, photo book maker Chatbooks took the top spot, followed by skin-care company Curology (No. 2), training and consulting firm Bitwise Industries (No. 3), and Evergreen Home Loans (No. 4).

To determine the Best Workplaces for Women, Great Place to Work analyzed anonymous confidential survey feedback representing more than 5.4 million U.S. employees.

Eighty-five percent of the ranking is based on what women themselves report about their workplace, and how fairly those experiences compare to men’s reports of the same workplaces.

The survey measures the extent to which women report their organizations create a great place to work For All™—for example, whether people trust each other and employees are able to reach their full human potential, no matter who they are or what they do for the company.

Great Place to Work analyzes whether different identities women hold change their experience of the workplace. Fifteen percent of the remaining rank is based on how well-represented women are from the frontlines to the executive suite.

Hyatt creates a warm welcome for women

Among the list winners with strong female representation in leadership roles is hospitality giant Hyatt. Half of Hyatt’s executive management team is female.

Susan Santiago, senior vice president and head of Lifestyle and Miraval Resorts operations at Hyatt, says one of the things that makes Hyatt a great place for women is the Women@Hyatt diversity business resource group (DBRG). It has been active since 2009 and was the first of the company’s eight DBRGs, Santiago says. Those DBRGs—akin to employee resource groups at other companies—now include Hyatt B.L.A.C.K, Hyatt Asian-Pacific Islanders, Latinos@Hyatt, Hyatt disABILITIES, and HyPride.

Santiago, who began her career at Hyatt 30 years ago as a restaurant server, took great pride in an event the Women@Hyatt group put on in 2019 in Southern California. “We were thrilled to host over 400 attendees including colleagues, customers, and outside speakers,” Santiago says.

Susan Santiago, senior vice president and head of Lifestyle and Miraval Resorts operations at Hyatt.

“The event was an incredible culmination of all the hard work that had been done in advancing female empowerment within Hyatt, and served as a meaningful reflection point.”

Hyatt continues to identify future women leaders and provide them guidance and tools to progress in their careers. Hyatt’s “Change Starts Here” initiative is designed to advance the representation of women and people of color in leadership roles. Hyatt is putting particular emphasis on the hotel general manager position.

“The GM role is an aspirational position that a lot of our hotel colleagues strive for, and historically, hiring in this role has lacked in diversity,” Santiago says. “We want to ensure that there is a clear path to advancement for diverse colleagues so that they can be recognized as high-potential future leaders, and attain their career aspirations.”

Closing the inclusion gap

Cedrea Stephens is among the women at Hyatt benefitting from the Change Starts Here effort. Stephens, director of operations at Hyatt Regency Crystal City at Reagan National Airport, is in a mentorship pilot program that pairs diverse leaders with a hotel general manager. Stephens’s mentor is Sherry Hicks-Buckles, GM of Hyatt Regency Greenwich in Connecticut.

Stephens appreciates being part of the pilot program, saying it continues a legacy of support she’s experienced at the company for many years. She joined Hyatt in 2006 as a corporate management trainee, a program that gives participants exposure to every department in a hotel as well as support from a hotel leader.

“From my earliest days at Hyatt, I have been surrounded by strong female leaders,” Stephens says. “Hyatt has truly created a culture in which you can reach the management or leadership level if you want it and you’re willing to work for it—it’s not unattainable.”

Cedrea Stephens is director of operations at Hyatt Regency Crystal City at Reagan National Airport.

Programs like Hyatt’s Change Starts Here can help address the “inclusion gap” between men and women at work. Great Place to Work research has found that as management responsibilities increase, women feel more included at their workplace—but so do men at the same rate. In this manner, the gender gap remains the same, even between executive men and women.

The research also shows that white women feel the largest gain in inclusion as they have more people management responsibilities. Latinx women feel the smallest gain in inclusion with more management responsibilities.

And although Black women feel a sizable gain in inclusion at work, they feel the least included at work at every level of management.

Lifting up all women

Given this data around inclusion, it’s no wonder that elevating women from marginal backgrounds is a recurring theme at the Best Workplaces for Women.

Consider the impact Sheetz had on Holly Thomas. Thomas came from a family living in poverty, and never expected to complete college. But she took a job as a Sheetz store employee at age 16, and 19 years later she is now a district manager. Together with a colleague, she oversees six stores in the Columbus, Ohio, area—a market into which Sheetz is expanding. Thomas also earned a college degree through a partnership between Sheetz and Salem University in West Virginia.

What’s more, Thomas identifies as bisexual, and has found that Sheetz welcomed her sexual orientation. About six years ago, she came out at work.

Best-Workplaces-for-Women-2021-Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas oversees six Sheeta stores in the Columbus, Ohio area.

“When I came in and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m seeing a girl. I’m now dating a woman instead of a man.’ No one batted an eye,” Thomas recalls. “I never experienced any repercussions or anything negative.”

On the contrary, Thomas appreciates the way she can bring her full self to work—which includes a boisterous personality, plenty of tattoos, and teal hair.

“This company has really embraced every part of who I am,” she says.

This feeling is widespread at Sheetz, according to the company’s survey data. Ninety-seven percent of employees who identify as LGBTQIA+ report that everyone is treated fairly, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Flexibility on hours, firmness on tipping

A key way Sheetz supports women involves what Doliveira calls a “no-fault” absenteeism policy. It allows employees to take time off on short notice without having to justify the absence. During the pandemic, Sheetz also increased the amount of PTO employees earn.

“Many of our employees are single moms with children,” Doliveira says. “Giving them time off is important—so they can take a day off with pay, and without being worried about losing their jobs.”

Another way Sheetz embraces female employees is by shielding them from a major hazard in the service industry: tipping culture.

Tipped restaurant workers, who are over two-thirds women, report facing dramatically increased health risks and harassment in restaurants during the pandemic. For workers who are forced to rely on tips to earn a living wage, enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols on potentially hostile customers, who may then withhold tips, is a nearly impossible expectation.

The power dynamics of customers paying tips helps explain why the service industry—which includes people working in restaurants, retail stores, supermarkets, and hotels—generates five times the average number of sexual harassment claims per worker.

But tipping is not part of the Sheetz culture. Although the company sells food and beverages, employees are paid full salaries and do not rely on tips.

“It has always been part of our culture to take care of our employees,” Doliveira says. “Ensuring they have a fair wage is part of that.”

See the full lists:

Get more information from Great Place to Work on how great workplaces are creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.

Great Place to Work logo 2018
Great Place to Work logo 2018

Claire Hastwell is senior content marketing manager at Great Place to Work.

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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com