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A gender equitable workplace

Illustration by Julie Morin

5 tips for creating a professional environment where all can thrive

Editor’s note:  Amanda Bullough is an associate professor of management, specializing in global leadership, and co-director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business and Economics.

We are at a time in history when it may seem that a lot of gender equality progress has been made. While abuse still happens, we collectively know that sexual harassment isn’t allowed and shouldn’t be tolerated. We know that we’re not supposed to ask a job applicant if she or he is planning to have children. Some of these types of behaviors go against company policy and some are outright illegal. 

On the other hand, the numbers tell another story. In 2018, just 4.8% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 were women with 24 female CEOs total, which is a 25% decline from 2017 when women represented 6.4% of CEOS. With such small headcounts, when just one woman retires and isn’t replaced by another woman, the percentages go down. In addition, women held only 15% of board positions in global companies in 2017. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take 108 years to reach global gender parity in health, politics, work and education, while women are on track to earn the same as men in 202 years.

At the organizational level, research findings put out in a 2017 Women in the Workplace Report show complete disparity in how women and men see their workplaces. For example, more men than women believe that the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees, that promotions are based on fair and objective criteria and that the company is doing everything it can to improve gender diversity. Women overwhelmingly agreed more than men that their gender has played a role in missing out on opportunities to advance their careers and will continue to make it hard for them to get raises and promotions.

However, countless research papers show that when more gender diversity is achieved in senior leadership positions, companies have more positive work environments.They are also more innovative and profitable and have more customers and higher sales revenues. What’s more, most high-performing organizations already know this and seem to want to have more women in senior positions. So then, why do we keep struggling to see numbers that bear this out?

The answer to this problem is not simply to stick more women into leadership positions. The last thing organizations need is unqualified women being put in positions where they won’t be successful, as this will only perpetuate the problem. The answer is leveling the playing field, by reducing, or ideally eliminating, bias. Below are five action steps that organizations can examine and improve in order to create more gender equitable workplaces.

1. Look at your data. There is so much data to be found on workplace equity in your organization. What percentage of men and women are in the middle positions of influence? Even if fairly equal numbers of women and men have the same title, are those titles really equal when it comes to the departments they work in, the projects they work on, the density of their territory or the size of their client bases, for example? 

Fair and complete data will allow an organization to openly explore where the greatest challenges lie in order for women to have equal opportunities to advance in their careers. These obstacles can be quite subtle but are more critical than most people can appreciate. Even the most progressive organizations have gender inequality, like Marc Benioff’s Salesforce, which has repeatedly conducted gender audits and then found and rectified gender pay gaps.

2. Be conscious of unconscious bias. These can be the biases you know about based on your data gathering exercise and those that are potentially there but go unnoticed. Take steps to eradicate, or at least significantly limit, these biases. These steps can include not only unconscious bias training but also a deep culture change where bias is weeded out professionally and diplomatically anytime it is noticed or expected. 

LeanIn provides a whole program with practical exercises to help organizations do this, including activities like teaching people how to notice when they make unconsciously biased statements and then how to professionally address it with coworkers. This process requires leadership. Senior leaders must lead by example and be open to constructive feedback.

3. Women need strength in numbers. They also need a cohort of fellow female colleagues to confide in and support. As long as women are the minority in leadership positions, particularly senior leadership, affinity groups can be quite powerful and help to keep work in gender equity progressing and consistent. If your organization doesn’t have one, it can be as simple as getting like-minded people together for a social gathering. Identifying professional development opportunities for women can also help to provide this important professional community of women while skill-building at the same time.

4. Men must be involved. Any minority group, like women in senior leadership roles, fights a much harder battle without support from the majority—in this case, that would be men. Many men want to support their female colleagues but simply don’t know how to be helpful. To be fair to our male colleagues out there, women’s affinity groups—despite their strong value—can make men confused about what their roles are in relation to gender equity in the workplace. Nonetheless, there are a lot of things men can do and they are really quite simple. Here are some ideas: look out for and challenge the likability bias that women face when they assert their opinions and ideas and are then accused of being “bossy” or “pushy,” evaluate performance objectively, make sure women get enough opportunity to speak in meetings and get credit for their ideas, share support and service work so that your female colleagues aren’t doing the lion’s share and watch out for the motherhood penalty that holds women back disproportionately to men.

On this last point, I find it really important not only for companies to offer paternity leave to new dads, but for new dads to unapologetically take it. While it is true that men don’t face the same massive and sometimes-puzzling body and hormonal changes, they don’t need to physically recover from childbirth and they can’t breastfeed in the middle of the night, there are two huge benefits to men taking their paternity leave, for both genders. One is that men get to bond with their newborns and support the new mother. The other is that the pause in one’s career is equalized. If only women take parental leave, then only women are taking time off from their careers, while our male counterparts keep their foot on the gas and keep progressing.

5. Publicly celebrate organizational gender-equity successes. Publicly celebrate women’s career advancement accomplishments in your organization. Make an example of men being good allies when you see them in action. Tout your progressive and gender-equal parental leave policies. Acknowledge the great work that your women’s affinity group is doing and how they are helping the organization. When the values of gender equity in your workplace are visibly ingrained in your organization, the institutionalization of these practices become second nature and effortless for employees, who then correct, or even weed out, others who violate these norms. This type of culture makes an organization a coveted place to work, which helps with recruiting and retaining top talent.

Organizations must take steps to ensure that all qualified candidates have access to the same career and skill-building opportunities and that broad ranges of candidates know about new leadership opportunities, have access to them and are evaluated and considered fairly. Also, we all need to be careful of falling into a perception trap. LeanIn.org explains that some improvement can seem impressive, when in reality little progress has really been made. If we can’t recognize inequality when it’s happening, it is very hard to address it. If companies are failing to listen to and promote talented women, they are likely missing out on key skill sets and company success factors.

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