It’s an ongoing conversation that women have long been overcoming challenges in their work lives. These challenges include a stubborn pay gap, less opportunity, higher standards, and gender bias. While society has taken many steps over the past several decades to enable women to achieve their career goals, the struggle remains and the conversation must continue. This article dives into some of those challenges that women in leadership face day to day, and what we can do as a community to create a more inclusive work environment.
Always Start with Why
With the understanding that barriers continue to exist, which we will explore in more detail below, let’s first discuss what the value of a more inclusive work environment would be. Why is this an important conversation to have? Why should businesses be more proactive in how they empower their women colleagues and leaders? The issue of fairness is an obvious one, but it is not enough to say that inequality prevented female employees from achieving their career aspirations. There will always be inequality on an individual level, but what can be argued is that a more diverse workforce (both at the top and at the bottom) will present a more realistic worldview of how a company can and will succeed.
Consider this, it’s important to call out that women are chief among the consumer demographic. Women are the lead adopters of technology in today’s consumer market. They lead in internet usage by 17%, a large portion of that activity is focused on e-commerce. In use of mobile phones, voice and text messaging, Skype, social networking sites, and all internet-enabled devices, women consumers take the lead. The bottom line is that gender diversity (and diversity in general) is good for business. A more diverse workforce is more likely to produce the products and services that women want to invest in. Diversity increases problem solving, nurtures innovation, and helps retain the industry talent that will drive your bottom line.
The numbers back up that claim. According a study by the McKinsey group, companies with a more diverse workforce perform better financially. They found that companies in the upper 25% of businesses ranked by gender diversity are 15% more likely to have greater financial returns than the national industry median. Ethnic diversity reports in with a 35% greater likelihood of business success. A diverse workforce is clearly worth investing in. The leadership and their skills that women can bring to the team help companies succeed by providing the vital perspectives that clients and customers demand.
Understanding the How
Once you see how valuable a more diverse workforce is, it’s important to understand what barriers women, particularly in leadership roles, face in their careers. 57% of all jobs in the U.S. are held by women, yet only 18% of those women hold leadership positions. For the women who do make their way into leadership roles, there are multiple layers of challenges pertaining directly to their gender that make it that much harder for women to position themselves for success.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, women are far more likely than men to see gender discrimination in today’s society. The majority of women say their gender faces at least some discrimination in society today, while almost 20% fewer men say they see the same level of imbalance.
This gap in perceptions of gender discrimination is evident across all generations as well as across partisan groups, meaning that discrimination is viewed as a problem by most women, but not as much so by most men, likely because they do not experience it firsthand.
In business, women and men are seen as equally good leaders, but gender stereotypes continue to influence careers and opportunities in important ways. The industry in particular shapes opportunity for women, such as energy, sports, and technology. In this way, women are often pigeon-holed into roles they may not be interested in or motivated to achieve the highest levels of career growth, with is a loss for companies across all industry verticals. As outlined clearly earlier in this blog, diversity is good for business, and it’s up to forward facing and profit minded companies to take action to bring in employees with a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences to stay relevant in a changing social landscape.
Looking at Opportunity
Access to higher education has been a huge step in the right direction for bridging the skills gap for women. There are currently more women students in university and college education programs than there are men, and more and more women are exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects as avenues for their education. After Title IX was enacted in June of 1972, women had much greater access to educational programs, but barriers within education still remain.
Negative stereotypes and simple underrepresentation within the STEM environment contribute to an overall challenge for women pursuing a degree in science or technology fields. Male-dominated work and education environments foster negative gender-based experiences such as sexual harassment and general discrimination. Men are more likely to direct sex-based mistreatment toward women in male-dominated careers as a way of penalizing women for violating gender-norms. Furthermore, many women experience greater performance pressure in these environments because they are highly visible as tokens and are expected to represent all of women kind. This leads to social isolation, alienation, and an overall toxic environment.
This is important because if we are not enabling women to act on opportunities to explore careers or an education in otherwise male-dominated areas, the gender gap will persist. This is where the need for male allies is so critical, because only when men step up to reproach other men for their negative behavior will a more welcoming work or learning environment exist.
Creating a More Inclusive Economy
Despite the presence and persistence of these and other barriers, there are women leadership who have stepped into the spotlight. Women like Toni Townes-Whitley of Microsoft, Mary Barra of GM, and Virginia Rometty of IBM all provide important success models that other women can look to and pursue themselves. Having the confidence to say, if she did it so can I, is an important step toward encouraging more women to step into and strive for positions of leadership across all disciplines and all industries.
Here are 3 important ways businesses can work towards encouraging more women to step into the spotlight.
1. Evaluate your culture
For diverse ideas to thrive, organizations need to understand how the existing culture is or is not supporting those ideas. Take time to gather feedback from employees and leadership to learn more about what the corporate culture is actually like. Are there certain habits or processes that limit diverse perspectives from thriving and being heard? Are there blind spots? How does unconscious bias impact your daily operations? Keep in mind that male employees often underestimate the challenges their female colleagues experience, and be sure to gather information from a wide variety of sources.
2. Commit to change
As a leader yourself, it’s important to recognize your level of influence. You set the tone and the priorities of your team and your business. Therefore, your success in creating an inclusive and diverse culture depends in large part on how visibly important diversity is to you and your colleagues. Your commitment to this change must be firm, communicated clearly, and acted on visibly. Show your commitment. Include your personal perspective in company communications and initiatives. Make it personal for yourself. Don’t allow this issue to appear as just another buzzword or mission that remains unsupported. Talk about why it’s important to you. Why does it matter to the business? Drive others to evaluate their own teams and working styles, and encourage them to build a more inclusive environment alongside you and your team.
3. Empower your team
Empowerment means more than just talking the talk. You need to walk the walk as well. Do what you need to create opportunities for women. Listen to their concerns. Value their feedback. Make changes that are meaningful to them, such as providing mentoring opportunities, engaging talent with flexible work options, reconsidering the limits of your parental leave and childcare policies, and supporting women’s groups and networking. Women tend to work and think a little differently, but they are not alien to the business world. Do what you can to empower your team and that will help recruit talent and build a working environment that reflects how all your employees think and work, and inevitably achieve great things.
Take a look at some of our highly recommended consultants that can help you and your company address challenges that women in leadership face day to day.
For more information on how you can enable women leaders in your organization, connect with the learning and development experts at Clarity Consultants. We can help you evaluate your existing culture, commit to and communicate change, and take action to empower your team for long term business success.