Closing the Workplace Gender Gap
Over the past 50 years women have come a long way with regards to gender equality in the workplace. They have secured leadership positions, launched their own companies, and broken into male dominated fields. (1) But even with this progress there are still cracks in the foundation that remain unfilled. Considering that the concept of gender equality is now commonplace in Western societies, the momentum that was gained in the 1970s has in many ways since stalled, (2) as “lingering structural inequities throughout our economy continue to affect women in the workforce”. Labor experts Heather Boushey and Joan Williams point out that “our social and economic policies are still basically tailor-made for the American workforce of the 1960s”. (3) In order to overcome these challenges and close the workplace gender gap, it is essential that we create institutional and structural changes, but most importantly challenge the status quo on a personal level and strive to overcome our own personal biases on a day to day basis.
Last year Apple released data on “the gender diversity of their workplace showing that globally, 30% of their overall employees were female; 20% of the company’s tech positions (engineering, programming, etc.), and 28% of their leadership positions were held by women. Numbers for other companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo were remarkably similar.” (4) Likewise a 2014 global census by Catalyst that looked at women’s share of board seats at stock market index companies across three regions and 20 countries, found that in North America women hold 19.2% of S&P 500 board seats in the United States; and 20.8% of S&P/TSX 60 board seats in Canada. In Europe, women’s share of board seats ranged from 7.9% in Portugal (PSI-20 index), to 18.5% in Germany (DAX index), to 22.8% in the United Kingdom (FTSE 100 index), to 35.5% in Norway (OBX index). And finally in Asia-Pacific, women’s share of board seats ranged from 3.1% in Japan (TOPIX Core 30 index), to 9.5% in India (BSE 200 index), to 19.2% in Australia (S&P/ASX 200 index).”(5) These numbers are in no way surprising but at the same time show the clear gender imbalance that exists and persists, genuinely giving a real cause for concern.
As decades of research by Catalyst suggests, when you increase the number of women in positions of power you have the potential to transform the way that women are treated at all levels of society.” Moreover we know that where there is gender diversity, there is innovation. “When more women lead, performance improves. Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed; innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable, and companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits”. (6) In addition to this compelling data, there is also “a clear link between diversity and corporate social responsibility, which really highlights the fact that what’s good for women is good for men, business, communities and the whole world.”(7)
For many decades “social science research has shown that gender discrimination is an institutional problem. Without exploring our own biases, managers may tend to see men as being more competent at some types of work compared to women, especially when it comes to leadership and management roles. This means that without realizing it, work is segregated by gender.”(8) We now know due to extensive research in social psychology, that gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our psyche and embedded in our social structures and personal beliefs, and that they often dictate the decisions that we make without us even knowing. We also know through extensive research in neuroscience that men and women’s brains are wired differently. The key to making a difference is understanding this critical information, and then taking the time to find out what we can do to leverage those differences and strengths. As Mary Brinton, a professor of sociology from Harvard University explains, “it’s not about telling women to be more confident and ambitious, it is more important to talk about how workplaces need to adapt to the “whole person,” both women and men”. (9) She goes on to explain that gender stereotypes are hard to break as has been demonstrated with the work of Mahzarin Banaji on ‘Implicit Bias’, but that “as a society, we need to encourage people to go beyond stereotypes and recognize the contributions that each individual, male or female, can make to the workplace and to relationships as a whole”. (10)
It is not enough to simply point out and accept that we all have biases. Based on a recent study by Prof. Michelle M. Duguid from Washington University in St. Louis, and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia, it has been demonstrated by “increasing the awareness of the prevalence of stereotyping in the hope of motivating individuals to resist natural inclinations, we could be instead creating a norm for stereotyping which paradoxically undermines the desired effects”. (11) Their data suggests that the very act of pointing out our biases and stereotypes as commonplace and universal could actually be making them more prevalent. Importantly, Duguid and Thomas-Hunt found that they were able to diminish or get rid of stereotypes and gender bias by adding one simple phrase to their research survey. Rather than merely informing managers that stereotypes persisted, they mentioned that a “vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.” With this adjustment, discrimination vanished. In fact after reading that simple statement, managers were 28 percent more interested in working with a female candidate”.
When we communicate that a “vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so we send a more effective message”. (12)
Furthermore, when we take a minute to look at how we can disrupt the current state of affairs with regards to the workplace gender gap, “the answer goes beyond doing it organizationally and politically. We need to disrupt the status quo individually, every day, in one-on-one interactions with colleagues as well as more publicly in the boardroom. What you will find in doing this, is that even small moments can add up to big changes.” (13) This is where a solid understanding of gender dynamics can go a long way towards creating more gender inclusive workplaces. Gender Dynamics is “the ability for each of us to leverage the innate distinctions that we all possess. These distinctions in gender can impact attitudes, behaviors and, expectations, work ethic, communication styles, habits and motivational triggers that can impact collaboration, team building, coping with change, motivating, managing and increasing productivity”.
By using gender inclusive language and learning techniques that help us to communicate more effectively, we can begin to utilize the skills and unique abilities that both women and men have to offer. The more that “smart leaders begin to see that women, like men, are eager to achieve, contribute, and be recognized and rewarded for their talents,” (14) the more things will continue to change for the better. Whether on boards or in leadership positions, companies do much better both financially and structurally when they are more diverse. It just makes good business sense. So it is time that we start to” walk the talk” when it comes to gender bias in the workplace and focus on closing the gender gap once and for all.