It’s March 7th. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. Each year we celebrate. Each year we have a different theme. Each year we are asked why we are continuing to celebrate – have we not made progress already? And what about the other genders, ethnic groups, and myriad other diversity characteristics that are well behind women in terms of equality? Shouldn’t we focus on them now? And each year I say, let’s not become complacent when it comes to gender parity because the moment we do, progress doesn’t just stall, it rolls backwards.
Taking the lead from the World Economic Forum, I have perused the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. According to the latest figures, we are now 132 years away from full parity – a 4-year improvement from the previous report. That said, the report also points out that:
The economic and social consequences of the pandemic and geopolitical conflict have paused progress and worsened outcomes for women and girls around the world – and risk creating permanent scarring in the labour market.
In fact, when it comes to the workforce, global gender parity has been in steady decline since 2009 and was exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020. As a result, the 2022 gender parity gap in the labour force is at its lowest ever at just under 63%.
When it comes to women in leadership positions at work, the picture is a little better, but what’s clear is that more women are hired across industries that already have a high representation of women than other industries. In other words, we’re only making progress with women in leadership roles where we have already been making progress.
So what can you do?
In the words of Albert Einstein: If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. So more of the same is not the answer. Here are three suggestions for what you can do differently, to ensure progress towards gender balance does not stall in your organisation:
1. Talk to women in the workplace.
The only way to understand what’s happening for women in the workplace is to talk to them. Ask them –on a regular basis, perhaps annually – what their experiences are in the workplace. How valued do they feel? How well do opportunities for progression present themselves? How involved are their line managers in supporting them in progressing their careers? Which of the most common biases do they experience in the workplace? How supportive of women are the existing employee benefits at their workplace?
2. Talk to men in the workplace
Perform a similar information gathering exercise with men. Talking to men about the same issues highlights a number of items:
- It helps identify systemic biases that affect (some) men equally – these are the areas to prioritise.
- It helps identify where the system is clearly skewed one way or another.
- It highlights issues affecting men that may have gone under the radar because they are seen as ‘acceptable’ in our society. These issues can lead to toxic masculinity, burn-out and other avoidable consequences.
- It provides a fuller understanding of the existing work culture and allows you to make the necessary adjustments.
3. Address common barriers
Once you have the relevant information, you can do something about it. Task special groups to creatively address the challenges that have become apparent, first addressing those challenges that are common to all who shared. What are some of the common biases that affect both women and men? Addressing these first will secure broad support for the initial measures you propose and create momentum you can carry forward when you then tackle the gender-specific issues.
It is useful to then look at any specific items that become apparent from the conversations that make it more difficult for women to progress or to identify opportunities for progress. Once you understand where barriers exist, a more in-depth look might be required to identify what is causing them. For instance, when you arrive at a level of seniority where women tend to get stuck, looking at written evaluations and feedback might make it obvious why this has been happening. For example, are women judged differently on their readiness to progress than men? Do expectations differ about when a woman is ready to step up to that next level?
Once identified, more often than not the solutions are quite straightforward. For instance, we know that when it comes to opportunities to improve chances of progression, these opportunities are sometimes made known through unofficial channels and are attained through networking and affinity. To ensure opportunities for improvement are available to everyone, a clearly and widely communicated progression path for future roles helps to level the playing field.
We strongly believe that addressing challenges that women face in the workplace will more often than not also help other under-represented groups. So instead of making small adjustments for any specific minority, keep your energy and efforts focused on the biggest underrepresented group in the workplace and thereby help everyone else who faces similar challenges.