#WhatsNext in your strategy to empower women at work?

#WhatsNext in your strategy to empower women at work?

March 8 is International Women’s Day—a day designed to celebrate the notable accomplishments of women everywhere and to brightly shine the spotlight on equality and parity issues. But why limit it to a single day? We think turning these issues into year-long goals will take us all further. We strive for a day when our daughters, nieces, sisters, and granddaughters work in a world where equality is the norm, and we won’t stop until we get there.

But a lot has to fundamentally change about work to get there. Women still face many barriers in the workplace that limit their progress and growth, keeping them on unequal footing with their male coworkers. And old ways of thinking about work aren’t helping either. It’s time to think more critically about how workforce strategies, flexibility, and independent work can raise women up. Read on for seven ways business leaders can take action and lead the way in empowering women. Let’s #DitchTheScript on old ways of thinking about work, and make it #WorkForWomen.

Measure what you treasure.

Unless equality and diversity are measured, tracked, and incentivized, nothing will change. To fully experience the benefits of a diverse workforce, accountability is critical—and accountability has to start at the top. To boost the hiring and retention of women, executives and leaders need to lead by example. Companies that make diversity a priority have clear goals surrounding it, and they hold their leaders accountable by measuring and reviewing these goals as part of their performance reviews.

What can leaders do next?

  • Actively share the positive, real results that come from maintaining a diverse workforce.
  • Make hiring and promoting women a strategic business priority.
  • Set target diversity metrics, publish results, discuss them, and continue monitoring them.
  • Tie diversity goals to performance reviews: business results will speak for themselves!

Challenge the male preference phenomenon.

According to a study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even when shown direct evidence that both a male and female candidate could perform equally at work, managers were still 1.5 times more likely to hire the male candidate. And not only male managers—female managers also made this gender-biased hiring decision.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a gender consulting firm, says that corporate America has "a preference for a masculine style of leadership" that is "deeply ingrained, largely unconscious, and reliably self-reinforcing."

For example, inquiring about multiyear gaps on résumés hurts women more than men, even though these gaps are often due to health reasons or caregiving responsibilities. Age also plays a role. In the UK specifically, up until the age of 40, the salaries of men and women in full-time positions are quite close to parity. However, for women over the age of 40, the pay gap is 12.8 percent. For those over the age of 50, it jumps even higher to an average of more than 15 percent. Unlearning this subconscious bias will take time, but it also takes an organization-wide effort. 

What can leaders do next?

  • Make the invisible visible through open discussions and ongoing training for managers and leaders.
  • Reframe gender bias as a business issue, not a women’s issue. Institutions must take responsibility and remove the heavy burden on women to be the only ones to change and adapt.
  • Review, assess, and change HR policies to foster more balanced hiring—including writing job descriptions as if looking for women to apply. Avoid "weed out the weak" language, and broaden the pool of candidates and actual experience needed whenever possible.
  • Inquire about, but don’t penalize for, work gaps on women’s résumés, as they are likely due to caregiving responsibilities, and not an indicator of lower commitment or potential.
  • For new opportunities, actively reach out to women who previously left the organization on good terms and invite them back to apply.

Balance the top.

Despite numerous studies confirming the benefits of diversity in our leadership ranks, women are still vastly underrepresented at the top. In April 2019, women accounted for just 27.8 percent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies registered in EU countries. Of the 2018 Fortune 1000 companies, women held only 22 percent of board seats, and other sources suggest this number is actually lower. And it's not just women who lose when they’re not involved: the organization and our entire society does. A global analysis of 2,400 companies by Credit Suisse found that organizations with at least one female board member yielded a higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that did not have any female board members. 

What can leaders do next?

  • Establish quotas for women in executive roles, in leadership, and on boards.
  • Create a women’s leadership pipeline by investing in development and coaching for women to prepare them for executive, leadership, and board positions.
  • Create a women’s advocacy program that goes beyond just a mentorship program. Women who already have the qualifications and skills necessary for leadership positions need advocacy far more than mentorship.
  • Cultivate male sponsor programs that actively promote moving women into leadership roles.
  • Understand that some male leaders may be uncomfortable being a mentor to a female colleague as a result of the #MeToo Address this head-on by acknowledging that concern may exist, and offer guidance, training, clear policies, and support so a comfortable, safe environment is created. The goal is to get women the same opportunities to network, build relationships, and receive the sponsorship they need to move ahead. 

Address the “only one” experience.

Women are often “the only woman at the table.” This is twice as common for women in senior-level positions, and for women in professional and technical roles. Research shows that 50 percent of women drop out of STEM positions within the first 10 years of work, as part of a leaky pipeline phenomenon where science and engineering fields consistently lose women as they progress through their careers.

When women find themselves with few female peers, they have a more difficult time, are more likely to experience unprofessional behavior by colleagues, are more likely to be left out, and are more likely to have their work and ideas scrutinized. They are also 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving their job compared to women with more female peers.   

What can leaders do next?

  • Make the “only one” experience a rare one. Ensure teams and work groups have a minimum of two women, and more for larger teams.
  • Train team leaders on the benefits of diverse teams. A gender diversity study sampling more than 4,200 organizations found that teams with higher numbers of women were more likely to introduce radical, new innovations into the market over a two-year period.
  • Bolster employee resource groups to ensure that women feel they are seen and heard through opportunities for support, advocacy, education, mentoring, and more.
  • Curb toxic behaviors and cultures that are destructive and dangerous for women. Implement procedures for reporting inappropriate behavior, and set a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.

Pave the way for more women in STEM fields.

To close the pay gap between men and women, one of the best methods is to get more women into lucrative fields like science and engineering—and keep them there. Today, roughly 25 percent of STEM-related jobs are held by women, though women represent half of the U.S. workforce. These rates are consistent across the EU as well, where women constitute less than 25 percent of science and engineering professionals. The first step is understanding the reasons why women are underrepresented in the first place.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons for this, including:

  • Stereotypes that negatively affect the performance and aspirations of women and minorities
  • Lack of self-confidence in STEM-related educational pursuits
  • Limited exposure to STEM fields
  • Lack of role models and mentors, leading to feelings of isolation
  • Lower interest in STEM fields due to different values regarding work
  • Workplace biases making it more difficult to advance in STEM fields
  • Perceived lack of work-life balance in STEM fields
  • High cost of STEM education

The second gap to close involves retaining these female employees. The attrition rate for women in STEM careers is far too high. In the U.S., women in STEM fields are 45 percent more likely than their male peers to quit their jobs within a year. This is despite the vast majority of these women reporting that they’re driven by meaning and purpose in their careers, and that they’d love to continue doing what they’re doing.

What can leaders do next?

  • Establish strong partnerships with diverse professional organizations. For STEM talent specifically, build your talent community by reaching out to professional societies that focus on female talent. Consider groups such as:
  • Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
  • Association for Women in Science
  • Society of Women Engineers
  • The Association for Women in Computing
  • Association for Women in Mathematics
  • Invest in training and retention programs for your female staff to fix the leaky career pipeline, especially prevalent among women in STEM fields.
  • Connect with girls in middle and high school and give them exposure and opportunities to engage in your industry’s innovations, inventions, and technologies.

Create programs to support women and their "second shift."

After coming home from work, most women—regardless of their professional status—still carry the burden for the majority of household chores, childcare, and eldercare responsibilities. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that women spend about an average of four and a half hours per day doing unpaid work, compared with slightly more than two hours for men.

This cultural norm has caused managers to have an unconscious bias toward women in the workplace. It’s assumed that a qualified woman will put household and caregiving responsibilities ahead of her career, which in turn creates a domino effect—locking women out of career advancement opportunities and greater fiscal rewards. Women who have fewer resources, belong to one or more marginalized groups, and lack access to affordable and consistently available childcare are hit the hardest.

What can leaders do next?

  • Make it #WorkForWomen by offering nontraditional, flexible work such as independent, project-based, part-time, and gig work so they can better balance their “second shift.”
  • Put your money where your mouth is by investing in remote work capabilities and cybersecurity setups that allow for flexible work. The Obama administration deeply valued having women employed in its ranks and invested in secure laptops for its working mothers to use at home, ensuring that they could also manage the critical needs of family life.
  • Help them get better at doing it all by offering meaningful benefits, such as childcare and eldercare assistance, and generous parental leave policies.

Remind them that they don’t have to change to be worthy.

Women are expected to change to fit the workforce: be confident, but not too confident; be assertive, but not too assertive. It’s a no-win situation. When Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was published in 2013, it made waves among professional women. Many applauded it for encouraging women to be assertive, but it also got pushback as less affluent and marginalized women were likely to get blowback at work for utilizing these tactics.

Research shows that when women boast about their skills, they are negatively perceived. In fact, they risk punishment—instead of being seen as confident and ambitious like their male counterparts with the exact same skills and qualifications.

“The focus on the confidence gap is troubling, as it suggests something is wrong with women and that we need to ‘fix’ them and have them act more like men. This misplaces the responsibility and the burden,” says Jessi L. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

And as Marissa Orr, author of the bestselling book Lean Out, said, “To close the gender gap, what makes more sense: rewiring women’s personalities, or rewiring the system to better accommodate their needs?”

Ultimately, the expectations and double standards heaped upon women are part of this persistent feeling that they need to change themselves to fit the old workplace model—when it’s actually companies and their leaders who need to #DitchTheScript and adjust their thinking.

What can leaders do next?

  • Train all staff members in the differences between male and female behaviors, and how to effectively and accurately perceive them.
  • Focus performance reviews on substance over style, results over methods, and behaviors over personality.
  • #DitchTheScript on how women should behave at work, and encourage confidence and individuality.

As the world of work continues to evolve, it’s on all of us to challenge the status quo. It’s time to create a better, stronger, more inclusive environment for female employees to thrive in. The next generation of hardworking girls are watching how women are treated at work and how they’re progressing in their careers. Making thoughtful, daily decisions to empower women of all ages, backgrounds, and professions is #WhatsNext in the world of work. Join us.
























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