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How Employers Can Support Women in the Workplace

How Employers Can Support Women in the Workplace

“If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy at a time when the aging of the population and weak productivity growth are already weighing on the economic growth.”

– Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary

The past few years, marked by a polarizing political climate and a deadly global pandemic, have made clear the disparities that still exist for women in the workplace. Despite immense progress that has propelled women towards a seat at the table, there is still ample room for more seats and more representation in the workplace and leadership roles. Employers today are poised to help women succeed now more than ever with several ways to ensure women are being treated fairly that include investing in the success of women, evaluating performance fairly, acknowledging success, and reassessing gender equity initiatives. Tools like Barometer can better measure the overall satisfaction women have with their employer and help formulate an effective strategy to combat those obstacles to success and gender equity in the workplace and beyond.

Gender Equality in the Workplace

2020 saw the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, meaning that women have only been part of the paid workforce for a little over a century. Today, women comprise roughly half of the workforce in the United States and continue to add to that tally each year. Despite this substantial progress over just 100 years, it is evident women do not have the same equality of opportunity in the workplace when compared to their male colleagues. Evidence from an S&P study suggests that women still face adversity, underrepresentation, and pay inequality in the workplace, among other factors, that have created an unequal playing field in the modern world of work.

The Gender Pay Gap

It was not until 1963 that legislation was passed in the U.S. to tackle the growing issue of pay inequality between men and women. The Equal Pay Act officially cemented the illegality of paying men and women different wages for fundamentally the same work within the same workplace, however, this bill has not done enough since its inception. According to a 2020 study by Lorman, on average, women earn $0.81 to every $1 made by their male colleagues. Along with pay raises, promotions can be even harder to come by for women: Only 34% of senior manager or director positions in the United States are held by women, grabbing an even smaller minority of C-Suite executives with 21%. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted as well.

McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study revealed that most women are discouraged during their formative years in the workforce. This is caused by delayed or eliminated promotions that ultimately set the course for their career trajectory. McKinsey uses the term “broken rung” to describe the most significant factor in workplace inequality; despite some gains in representation over the past 20 years, women are losing out on the first step up the ladder. Unless women are given the same promotion opportunities as men, this trend will only persist.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Women in the Workplace

Since the late 1980s, women’s participation in the workforce has decreased. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this population has decreased further. In January 2021 alone, 80% of all adult workers who left the workforce were women. ADP’s Chief Economist Nela Richardson points out that these jobs losses differ from those of the 2008 recession in two distinct ways:

  1. Women make up the majority of the hardest-hit sectors like hospitality, travel, and non-essential healthcare.
  2. Women were more likely to stay at home as daycare centers and schools closed their doors to prevent the spread of the virus.
Nicole Mason, President and Chief Executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, coined the term “shecession” to explain the rapid departure of women from the workplace amid the pandemic. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the 2020 “shecession” is the first time since 1948 that the female unemployment rate has surpassed double digits. McKinsey predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic could set women in the workplace back more than half a decade.

Working Moms Hit the Hardest

It is important to highlight that women with children have been the hardest-hit population of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working moms have shouldered the brunt of the pandemic’s force by being more likely to homeschool their children. According to a 2020 New York Times survey, mothers were primarily responsible for homeschooling, even if parenting duties were shared with a partner. The same survey points out that the additional time women spend on domestic work, particularly childcare, has significant consequences outside the home, especially in a career. The NYT explains that it is a major reason for lower pay and stunted career growth among women in general and that the repercussions of the pandemic will only exacerbate this issue. Many have said the pandemic did not create these problems but rather increased these disparities further.

A 2021 study from the Pew Research Center echoes this sentiment; it found that 59% of women in heterosexual relationships said they did more than their spouse or partner when it came to parenting and household responsibilities. 78% of mothers said they take on the bulk of managing children’s schedules, schooling, and activities. These numbers have shot up since the onset of the pandemic. The statistics point to one clear reality: when a crisis hits, our society depends on working moms to accept a large career penalty in exchange for what seems like an impossible choice between family and livelihood.

How Employers Can Empower Women at Work

The good news is there is an abundance of ways employers can support women in the workplace: investing in their success, evaluating performance fairly, acknowledging successes, supporting working parents, and reassessing gender equity initiatives are all ways employers can work to close the gender equity gap in the world of work.

Invest in the Success of Women

Because the issue of inequality in the workplace has persisted since women entered the workforce, companies must consider rebuilding their practices from the ground up. Bank of America is one company that did just that, starting with mandatory diverse hiring guidelines for recruiting new talent, frequent surveys and benefits reviews, and expansion of life event services. BoA also made a point to continue regular conversations on career tracking to ensure women felt both heard and supported. This investment paid off handsomely for BoA who was awarded the 2019 Catalyst Award for its strides in supporting women in the workplace.

A study from the Center for Creative Leadership furthers this argument with the fact that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards and within their leadership financially outperform companies with the lowest female representation. The study cites that gender-diverse teams have higher sales and profits compared to those that are male-dominated, arguing further that these same gender-diverse units will have higher revenue on average than those that are less so. This means real leadership opportunities – the CCL shows that organizations expect women to be more qualified than men for the same positions and that those opportunities often come with more resources compared to those offered to female colleagues. These same opportunities are often met with impossible expectations that often put women in a position to fail. These positions must provide meaning, value, and strength by setting women up for success, rather than expecting failure. Investing in female success by promoting both the positions and pay of women will prove effective not only in workplace culture but in profit margins as well.

Evaluate Performance Fairly & Acknowledge Success

Evaluate salaries and benefits regularly. Women are less likely than their male colleagues to receive consistent pay raises and benefits reviews. Celebrate their success in ways that are meaningful to them and be mindful of how you celebrate female achievement – promote them, appoint them, and believe in them.

Evaluate performance with consideration – there is no one-size-fits-all model to evaluating performance, but there are a few ways to ensure employers are taking steps to make evaluations as inclusive as possible:

  1. Remove gender bias from evaluations

According to Lean In, gender-blind studies consistently show that removing gender from decision-making improves women’s chances of success. They give the example of an employer replacing a woman’s name with a man’s name on a resume, which improved her odds of getting hired by a shocking 61%. Lean In shows that, over time, “even small deviations in performance evaluation have a significant impact on women’s careers… This difference also helps explain why women are hired and promoted based on what they have already accomplished, while men are hired and promoted based on their potential.”

  1. Give women the credit they deserve

With the many differences found between men and women, it should come as no surprise that women and men also measure success and failure very differently. Men are much more likely to attribute their wins to their inherent abilities and blame their failures on situational factors like inadequate time to prepare or a lack of interest in the position. On the other hand, women would base much of their success on different factors that include “getting lucky” and “help from the team” while attributing failures to a lack of ability. Because women also tend to receive and thus give themselves less credit for their work, they are also less likely to put themselves forward for promotions or more challenging tasks. Celebrate female success in a way that is meaningful to them through promotions, salary raises, and increased representation in leadership and managerial roles.

Giving all genders equal opportunities to feel their work is valued and appreciated is the most sure-fire way to yield high job performance. Employers should take time to learn about the personal values, passions, goals, and ambitions of their workers. Take the key learnings from these interactions and integrate them into their overall career path. Acknowledge and celebrate their success in a way that is meaningful to them as individuals. This helps make their workplace a place of equal creativity and productivity – each of which plays an important role in overall workplace satisfaction and retention over time.

Reassess Gender Equity Initiatives

Is that policy truly inclusive or is it just written to reflect the pressures put on corporations to be politically correct? Regularly review your internal policies and consider how they will impact women differently than their male colleagues.

S&P Global published a study in February of 2021 that shows more and more companies are integrating gender diversity into their investment criteria to maintain a competitive edge, but mostly because of one obvious factor: it pays off. Companies including Morgan Stanley, State Street Global, and BlackRock all introduced investment strategies that included gender equity scoring criteria. These companies all saw a direct impact on the composition of their leadership with the number of companies with fewer than two female board members dropping by 14% within five months, according to S&P.

This kind of representation has a much larger impact on the overall health of a company. For example, McKinsey found that countries with threshold requirements for gender diversity tend to perform better financially than those that do not. Their report found that “companies whose boards are the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely than their peers to outperform financially.” This representation matters because it brings a more diverse breadth of experience, viewpoints, and backgrounds that may not be considered on a board comprised of only men.

Creating an Economy of Equality

Supporting women in the workplace is about much more than positive affirmations and pats on the back – it’s about creating an economy and society that values and accommodates everyone equally. Our economy will never be at its full operational capacity until we make opportunities for everyone to have a seat at the table. Employers are equipped to support women, perhaps now at a more critical time than ever before, and in turn, fuel the health of our economy by helping them reach their full potential. Listening to and understanding the unique needs of working women through employee sentiment tracking with Barometer can propel organizations to make informed decisions that will contribute to the rebuilding of our economy from the grassroots level. In the words of Janet Yellen, if these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of our citizens; women have been squandered from their full potential for far too long and employers have never been more capable of being the catalyst needed to aid in that recovery.

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