The Future of Women at Work

With International Women’s Day fast approaching, what better time to discuss the Future of Work for Women, and how the ongoing gender wage gap has us wondering whether we will achieve gender parity in the workplace any time soon.

From a historical perspective, women have been demanding equal pay dating all the way back to 1830s. One of the earliest noteworthy examples was in 1832 when women who worked in a London inn, joined with male trade unionists from the United Trades Association, to voice their concerns. A year later in 1833, unionized women in the Women Power Loom Weavers Association in Glasgow also struck for equal pay. 1 Now here we are 184 years later and it still hasn’t been achieved! As it stands today, “wage gaps persist across all industries, even those where female participation is comparatively high. With this reality, there continues to be both unconscious beliefs as well as a lack of structural support, with organizational practices that often still reflect the family structures of half a century ago.”2 According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), if we continue on our current trajectory we won’t reach global gender parity until at the very earliest 2133. Only another 117 years to go……

Although global gender parity is projected to be such a long way off, when we look back 10 years “it is clear that the same level of social awareness did not exist around the issue of gender equality, and this recent momentum definitely gives cause for hope of faster change in the future.” 3 But with this hope, we also need to be aware that in the next 4 years we are slated for some major economic upheaval in what is being termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with “the global economy on track to lose 7.1 million jobs. With this shift we are going to see gender implications to the future of jobs. Based on the absolute job gains and losses, the burden of job losses seems to fall equally on women (48%) and men (52%). However, given that men represent a larger share of the overall job market than women, this even spread translates into a widening of the employment gender gap, with women losing five jobs for every job gained compared with men losing three jobs for every job gained.” 4

It is for this reason that we really need to focus our attentions on the Future of Work for Women and what that really looks like going into the next 5-10 years. The most important thing we need to take away from this information is that despite the looming global economic shift, we cannot afford to let the momentum for gender parity stall. We must keep this momentum going!. Otherwise “not only will we see a stall, we will actually see a potential reversal in the gains we have made in gender equality. In order to prepare for this change it is imperative that women and girls become better prepared for the type of occupations that are likely to grow in the future.” 5 This growth will predominantly take place in the STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professions, which are currently dominated by men. As it stands “if current gender gap ratios persist from now until 2020, there will be “nearly one new STEM job per four jobs lost for men, but only one new STEM job per 20 jobs lost for women.” Those statistics, “[add] to the urgency with which leaders must address the chronic problem of getting more women into these occupations.” 6

It is critical that we begin to focus on the steps that we can take today as individuals, as companies, and as governments to make these changes more attainable and possible. We can begin by looking at all the benefits of gender parity, and how it really is an investment into the future that promises incredible returns, not just for companies alone but for entire countries. Gender parity in the workplace makes good economic sense and allows companies to thrive and succeed by utilizing the skills of all available talent pools. When it comes to “leadership positions, companies with top quartile representation of women in executive committees in general perform better than companies with no women at the top, by some estimates with a 47% average return on equity.” 7  Furthermore according the McKinsey Global Institute, the world economy could add trillions of dollars in growth during the next ten years if countries met best-in-region scores for improving women’s participation in the labor force.”8

So what is standing in our way and what can we do about it?

Unconscious bias along with perception gaps are stated as the number one reasons why gender equality is so hard to achieve. According to Mckinsey research on Diversity, fewer men than women acknowledge the challenges faced by female employees at work. For instance, when asked whether “even with equal skills and qualifications, women have much more difficulty reaching top-management positions,” the gender divide was striking: 93 percent of women agreed with the statement, but just 58 percent of men. And while just 5 percent of women disagreed with the statement, some 28 percent of men did.” 9

What can employers start doing today to change this?

From the WEF’s Repository of Successful Practices for Gender Parity, we leave you with the six practices that have been proven the most successful and effective for leading companies worldwide when it comes to gender diversity, retaining, recruiting, and mentoring. They are as follows:

Leadership and company commitment: Achievable, relevant recruitment and retention targets at all levels, with an embedded accountability mechanism, are critical. Developing a disaggregated database can help to evaluate the causes of gender imbalances and track progress. Transparent salary bands to track and address male and female salary gaps are additional useful tools to understand the status quo in organizations.

Measurement and target setting: The focus of many companies on building awareness indicates that the case for change still needs to be built to make progress. Accountably of the senior management and transparency of career paths and opportunities have proven to be effective practices. Ensuring that management policies, processes, systems and tools do not harbor gender-biased discrimination and enhancing the understanding of unconscious biases can also make inclusive leadership more tangible.

Work environment and work-life balance: Women are often the primary caregiver for both children and the elderly in most countries. Ensuring smooth on- and off-ramping and appropriate childcare options, and developing guidelines on implementation of work-life balance policies and mentoring for women going through a transition are important levers to ensure a sustained career progression towards management. For those companies that already offer parental leave, flexible working hours and other work-life balance programs, the next steps lie in accelerating their use and acceptance of their female and male employees.

Mentorship and training: Companies have benefitted from programs that promote guidelines on the value of diversity as an underlying culture of the organization, and impart knowledge on how to manage a more diverse workforce and how to attract, retain and promote female talent. These training programs, for both men and women, can be relevant for shaping an environment within the broader employee base for women to successfully lead. In addition, many companies have formal mentoring schemes for women seeking leadership positions, although they also find that high-potential women lack the sponsorship and tailored training needed to move into the executive ranks. A repositioning of the human resources directors beyond a focus on systems and administration to talent development and training can help address specific roadblocks for women, in addition to better overall talent management.

Responsibility beyond the office: Many companies have leveraged the opportunity to exercise external influence along the value chain including diversity training for suppliers, distributors and partners and training to support women-owned businesses in the organization’s value chain. External influence can also be exercised by ensuring gender neutrality in advertising, engaging girls and young women to display possible career paths and developing partnerships with gender parity-focused civil society and public sector initiatives.

The time is now to make real progress on gender wage parity. Make it your personal focus and commitment as part of International Women’s Day on Tuesday March 8th.

Breanna Rothe

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