Nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, female equality and employment opportunities are still hot button issues. Despite progress made in the 19th and 20th centuries, many women are still presented with challenges due to stereotypes and cultural beliefs that should have been gone by now.
It’s true that concerns about gender equality and equal pay are gaining attention in the corporate world, but many women still find it difficult to combine careers with family because of caregiving responsibilities for an aging family member, raising their own children, or both. Those in the US have faced this “sandwich generation” phenomenon for years, while research shows that it is becoming a growing concern in Asia and Africa.
While women take a leave of absence to have a baby or care for a sick family member, men often continue their work schedule without much interruption. This perpetuates the stereotype that a woman’s primary place is in the home. In companies where “good” performance is measured by hours worked rather than results obtained, women who attempt to juggle workloads between home and the office can be disadvantaged.
Historically, the ideal employee showed up early to work, stayed later than others, and volunteered for extra projects, making them appear dependable and hard working. However, experts and some corporations are seeing now that the real value of an employee is the results they deliver, rather than the superficial metrics of perfect attendance and “working” more hours.
Addressing the critical issues of diversity, inclusion, and the pay gap timely are obvious first steps, but there are many other ways to improve the company culture that will attract and retain more women. Here are five steps that any company can take to advance gender diversity:
Five Gender Diversity Building Steps for Companies:
1. Remove Non-Traditional Labels
Perhaps the greatest advancement to the conversation will be to remove the labels associated with jobs that have historically been considered “men’s work.”
History is sprinkled with stories of women who broke gender barriers. Some went as far as disguising themselves as men to be able to do so. It wasn’t uncommon for women writers to assume a pen name, or those who secretly served in various wars dressed as men.
More recently, Pili Hussein disguised herself as a man to access Tanzania’s mines. “I didn’t know if the law forbids women or the men didn’t think women could do the job” she said. “I secretly followed some men into a mine and watched them dig and sieve the dirt for raw tanzanite. I thought to myself, I can do this too. Why should it matter that I am a woman?” Hussein went on to create her own mining company with more than 70 employees.
Other fields, such as construction, aviation, firefighting, and computer programming also remain dominated by men. Large corporations, including Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco have 30 percent or fewer women in leadership positions. While we know women possess the skills to excel in all these “unconventional” roles, a shift in the mindset of the decision makers is needed to bring about change and ensure more women are hired in roles which have been traditionally seen as only for males.
2. Provide Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs)
Switching the focus to productivity and results rather than structured schedules is a beneficial and attractive policy, especially for women who are often primary caregivers. Many companies have used “flex time” or staggered schedules to abate traffic congestion or be open/available more hours to clients and customers, but not necessarily to accommodate women in caregiving roles. FWAs may be based on hours worked or the location where the work is done.
In the past two years, working from home became a new normal for many companies due to the pandemic, and they now find that some employees don’t want to physically return to the office for various reasons. Many organizations already had networks, tasks, and information sharing systems in place, so the transition was easier for some workers. Other companies had to quickly ramp up their ability to hold video meetings, coordinate projects and share documents in order to keep pace or stay open during country-wide lockdowns. The end-result is that many more organizations are now better positioned to allow for some or all employees to work from remote locations. Now that flex and remote work options are more common, employees want (and in some cases demand) the advantages of being able to better balance work and home lives.
On the flip side, some companies offer many on-site perks that make returning to the office more enticing, such as childcare, fitness centers, and prepared meals, which also attracts talent.
The debate over the effectiveness of in-person versus virtual collaboration will be ongoing as the world continues to navigate the virus variants and geographical mandates fluctuate. Regardless, companies are seeking top talent beyond regional restrictions, and FWAs are more than an attractive option to many women—In fact, they are a necessity based on their other life obligations.
3. Dismantle Stereotypes
Recognizing the skill sets each gender excels in and creating positions that play to those strengths are steps in the right direction. While that may sound like it focuses on gender since men and women bring differing soft skill sets, many productivity experts find it highly effective. Celebrating differences instead of having them as grounds of inequalities will be foundational to making an equitable workforce. Training across the spectrum of positions, not just leadership or supporting roles, can set the stage for women to advance within the organization.
Longstanding company cultures that fostered the Old Boy Network stereotype need to re-evaluate their core value and mission statement to move into the 21st century. This includes addressing sexual harassment by developing prevention strategies, creating workplace reporting practices that are safe, and ensuring follow through and thorough investigation on complaints.
The problem of workplace sexual harassment is large in scale and the costs are high for women and companies. According to a survey conducted in the year 2018, nearly 38% of working women report they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Leadership needs to recognize not only the effect such an experience has on the individual but how it also affects the company through increased absenteeism, higher job turnover, reduced engagement and productivity, and potential negative liability and public relations fallout.
Moreover, according to the Employee Benefit News (EBN) the cost of replacing a worker is 33% of the worker’s salary per annum. Yet, studies conducted by the Work Institute in 2017 show that 75% of causes of employee turnovers can be prevented.
If the situation isn’t addressed, it’s highly likely the victim of sexual harassment will leave the company to avoid further harassment or troublesome working conditions. The employee is likely to have to endure mental, emotional, and financial discomforts such as hiring attorneys, taking unpaid leaves or seeing counseling, especially if they lack support or formal investigations from the organization.
Female employees may do more than just leave the company if they worked in an industry or field with few women—they might seek a new career. Retraining while making a transition or a lapse in employment while seeking a new job could add financial hardship to an already emotionally charged, challenging time for women.
4. Provide Pay Transparency
Transparency in pay, promotion, and opportunities regardless of gender makes an organization a desirable place to work for all. It is easier to recognize and root out inequalities amongst employees of different genders. Attention to appreciating the nuances and differences each segment brings to the table removes barriers that women have faced for decades and gives credit to the role everyone plays in making a business successful.
The organization that focuses on dismantling gender (as well as race/ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, sexual orientation) bias, and non-inclusive language and environments while intentionally increasing the number of women in leadership and other C-suite positions will likely see a better bottom line.
5. Promote Mentorship
Encouraging women in all positions to either seek mentoring or serve as a mentor can be a low-cost addition to a company’s operations. Women supporting each other will reduce feelings of isolation, increase confidence and provide encouragement to each other to seek leadership positions. Hiring women in leadership roles will also demonstrate a company’s willingness to increase diversity. Men in leadership can also mentor as long as they keep the skill set in mind, rather than gender. In the end, all employees will benefit from learning across the board which will be in the best interest of the organization as a whole.
Positive Signs: Companies Focused on Increasing Women in Leadership
As noted before, women are steadily and surely working their way into the C-suite, with some leading companies making conscious efforts to increase the representation of women in executive positions. Though the scale is not balanced yet, a few companies are trying to level the playing field by giving all employees equal opportunities. These businesses are taking charge of bridging the gap to ensure that women are immediately supported for career growth.
For instance, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has a nearly equal balance of men and women across the board with 24% of the top positions occupied by women, including the CEO, CFO, and CPO. Founder Jack Ma said, “Women balance the logic and the instinct. I would say this is the ‘secret sauce’ of the company.”
Medical supply company Abbott has a long history of being a leading workplace for women. Inclusion, diversity, and equity are their core values and attention is given to providing inspiring growth opportunities for women through programs and initiatives for leadership and career development.
Honeywell is another company focused on developing women into leadership roles. The company offers programs that range from Mentoring and Development Programs for High Schoolers to Honeywell India’s Return to Work program that supports a longer maternity leave and transition assistance for those returning to the workplace after having a child.
This shift in mindset is not beneficial only for women but also for these corporates. Empowering women and giving them equitable opportunities is a plus—research by McKinsey & Company has shown that women in leadership positions tend to be better than men at managing employee burnout, providing emotional support, and invest more time in cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion. This leads to a more motivated and highly productive workforce which directly translates into increased profits.
The workplace has historically been less than an inclusive place for women. Yet slowly, by shifting attitudes and workplace environments, better opportunities and progress are possible. Moreover, it’s no secret that happy employees are more reliable, productive, and in the long run, profitable for the company. Therefore, enabling equality and breaking down barriers is not only the right, but also the smart thing to do. Smaller steps of conscious change can compound into greater actions of significance, reaping benefits all around.