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Gender inequality in the workplace: A lack of women in leadership

Christina Pavlou
Christina Pavlou

An experienced recruiter and HR professional who has transferred her expertise to insightful content to support others in HR.

Gender inequality in the workplace

“We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.”

It was March 5, 2018, when Frances McDormand during her Oscar acceptance speech for Best Actress sent a powerful message: women have ideas and, to put those ideas into action, they need a seat at the table.

This message goes beyond Hollywood and the film industry; women in the workplace today should be equal with their male colleagues. And it’s not just about representation for the sake of it; it’s not about striking gender balance in numerical terms. Of course, that’s a good start. But, to elaborate on McDormand’s point, what’s even more important is to bring gender balance in leadership roles, in the decision-making process and in the strategic part of the business.

With International Women’s Day just around the corner, now seems like the perfect time to further the discussion on gender balance, particularly in leadership. Every year, on March 8, the rights of women in education, equal pay and fair treatment at work are assessed worldwide. And while the battle against gender inequality in the workplace is not a one-day event, this day is still a good opportunity to assess where we stand right now, what has changed from this time last year and previous years, and where we can improve.

Gender equality at work in numbers

The good…

In a Pew Research Center survey, we find out that “today’s young women are starting their careers better educated than their male counterparts.” And as most women now get higher education than their mothers and grandmothers before them, they’re able to bring those skills to the workplace and this has started to show. In other research, we learn that Americans don’t find significant differences between women and men in their ability to run a company, with numbers varying based on sector.

In fact, in certain industries, women seem to have an advantage based on the survey’s findings. 31% think a woman would do a better job running a retail chain, while only 6% can say the same for a man. In healthcare, 19% think a woman would be a better choice as a hospital’s manager, while less than half (8%) would say the same for a man.

Various studies indicate that when women get senior positions, companies become more profitable. (Some examples here and here.) These numbers help investors look towards female-founded companies. They also make business owners consider diversifying their senior management.

… and the bad

Only 23 of 239 VC-backed unicorn companies across the world have female founders, while women are underrepresented in CEO positions, too, with only 4% of US Fortune 500 companies having a female CEO. For women of color, the numbers are even more disappointing, as only 4% hold a C-suite role among US companies. In the same 2018 Woman in the Workplace study, we learn that for every 100 men who are promoted to manager level, only 79 women are promoted and, if we break down the data even more, just 60 black women are promoted.

In a YoY analysis, we can see that women are getting more places in the board, but men outnumber women significantly in all regions. For example, between 2005 and 2014 European companies had 14% women in their boards and this percentage rose to 24% since 2014. In other areas the inequality of men and women is even larger: for example, in Japan, the same metric went from 1% to 2% and in North America from 15% to 18%.

Finally, working women may now get higher salaries than in the past, but they still make less than their male colleagues. Based on data from the US Census Bureau, a woman makes 80.5 cents for every dollar a man earns. And when it comes to the highest incomes, the job aggregating service, Adzuna, found that only 11% of those who earn more than $100,000 per annum are female employees.

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Why is there such a gender inequality in the workplace?

Everyone is all about Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace these days. Still, the numbers above tell a different story. It seems like we want to bring more women in leadership, but we don’t really know how to do that.

There’s a long history of gender imbalance

One of the main reasons for this gender inequity is that we’re tied to old habits. Historically, C-suite roles are held by men and in certain industries, such as tech or manufacturing, the discrepancy is even more obvious. Think, for example, an engineering position. Traditionally, there have always been more male job applicants for a role like this, so naturally these male candidates get hired and eventually promoted to managerial roles.

Even if now things have changed and more women choose to study engineering and web development, it’s still tough for them to enter this male-dominant space. And when they enter, they come across a dead end. For men, the career path seems pre-determined; their (male) managers have already showed the way. But how can women compete with their male colleagues who are already in track of becoming managers? Most importantly, how can they advance their careers if no one’s advocating for them and if there are no other female leaders who can set the example?

Unconscious bias is all around us

“Men are more assertive than women, that’s why they request and get a promotion more often.”

“After a certain age, women will struggle to balance family needs with the requirements of a senior position.”

“Women are more sensitive, thus not able to handle the pressure that goes with leadership.”

These are all generalizations and stereotypes, yet they impact the way women are treated in the workplace. We’re inclined to think that women won’t be able to handle their management duties, instead of creating a work-life balanced environment for all employees or instead of building up those necessary leadership skills among our high-potential staff, regardless their gender.

Age discrimination in the workplace is also a common issue specifically for women. They’re often overlooked for a promotion under the assumption that they might get pregnant soon. Or, they’re not easily given a chance to move their career forward and take on challenging tasks once they return at work after a short break.

Bringing more women in leadership

In most countries, more women have now access to high education and they’re performing better than their male students. We’re surrounded by strong females who openly take a stand against inequity and influence other women to do the same. Global movements like #MeToo turn the spotlight on what once used to be a taboo issue. These are all signs that allow for some optimism.

But we can’t truly tackle gender inequality in the workplace just by sitting around and waiting for things to change, or even voicing a desire to make things better. We need to get proactive if we want to achieve gender balance.

Benefit from the ripple effect

The quickest solution to fix the lack of women in leadership roles is to hire women in leadership roles. Affirmative actions will bring you results in the short-term. But they will also have a long-term impact. Simply put: hiring one woman in a senior position raises the total number of females with a senior-level job by one. But in the future, this woman is likely to hire and promote more women too. So, eventually, that number will go even higher.

This happens for two reasons. First, that woman is able to better understand the potential of her peers and can advocate for them. She also understands how her team can benefit from gender balance and knows where to look for new female team members. Second, she acts as a role model for other women who might be otherwise more hesitant to apply for a job at an all-men team. Seeing a woman at the wheel, though, they get the message that this particular team (and company in general) values women and gives them the opportunity to grow.

Along these lines, Rachel Bates, Workable’s SVP of Sales & Marketing, described how – and why – she built a gender balanced sales team as a female hiring manager. And the need to do that was clear after she realized that, when looking for a new job in late 2016, 49 out of 50 times she was interviewed by a man.

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The fact that men outnumber women in senior positions makes the workplace look like a boys’ club. And we’re not just talking about toxic situations where male coworkers engage into locker room talk or female employees get harassed. A “boys’ club” exists when there’s no representation for women in decision-making. Because that’s when female voices are rarely heard and their needs are overlooked.

To change that, we don’t need more discussion on why gender balance in the workplace is good; we need tangible steps. But that’s a hard thing to do when you’re the only woman in your team. Sharing advice with other successful women; having a female mentor; actively participating in women’s groups: these are all ways for women to learn from each other and get empowered in the workplace. Organizations like She Geeks Out do exactly this: create a network, a safe place for women who want to advance their careers. Recently, we collaborated with SGO for an event dedicated to age and gender discrimination and learned what companies can do to tackle these challenges. You can also watch the recording of our event:

Here’s another aspect of that “boys’ club” mentality: 98% of VC funding goes to men. Women with great business ideas still struggle to get financial help. And it’s this exact unfairness that certain VC companies try to address, by funding only female-led startups.

Make a sustainable change

Gender balance in the workplace, and specifically in leadership roles, it’s not a quota you want to reach. Let’s say you actively look for and hire more women in senior-level jobs at your company. If you don’t support those women, then they won’t be able to make a difference in the organization. If you don’t support career growth for the rest of your women who now hold an entry-level position, then soon you’ll face gender imbalance again.

If you want to fix gender inequality in the workplace, you have to fight the problem at its roots. You need to implement company-wide policies that promote equity, you need to train executives and employees across all levels on biases and you need to engage the “privileged” group – men – in discussions on why gender balance is important.

Only when we’ve all realized why equity in the workplace is important and when we’re all committed to fight discrimination, we’ll be able to truly create work environments where every employee has equal rights in leading and thriving. It’s not just the movie industry that Frances McDormand is referring to – it’s the workplace at large.

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