When compared to the early days of the International Women’s Day movement, it can feel as though the world has come a very long way in the quest for equality.
With origins pre-dating the First World War, when most countries women were still fighting for universal suffrage, there may be some malaise in some quarters, a feeling of: “Haven’t we been championing women’s rights rather a long time? Haven’t we done enough?”
And while the gains have certainly been marked over more than a century, there remains a long way to go in terms of true equality between the sexes, particularly when it comes to leadership in the workplace.
At the turn of the millennium, the number of Fortune 500 CEOs who were female numbered just two, compared with the 498 male CEOs. By 2021, the number of female leaders had risen to 41, but the vast majority (451) were still men (1)
The issues are not limited to simply the seniority of women – there remains a noticeable gender pay gap too, with women earning just 82 cents for every dollar men make in 2021, according to data from Payscale. (2)
And so this year, when IWD is asking us to “break the bias”, we’d like to shine a light on the unconsciously biased belief that the corporate world is doing enough to promote and encourage gender diversity and to encourage our partners to do more.
Why are we still so far from equality?
Despite the changing times, many companies still do not see gender diversity as a priority. It is also not uncommon to hear mistrust towards female leaders because of unconscious gender bias, even amongst people who consider themselves progressive (3). On top of this, women remain the traditional caretaker of domestic matters, such as housework and caring for kids and elderly relatives.
There remains a glass ceiling for many women, they can see a logical path to the top, but find themselves impeded by obstacles that stand in the way of women advancing their careers. For instance, a woman might choose not to apply for a more senior position because she knows she is the main caregiver at home (4), or because there is a lack of flexibility in the role which would allow her to continue to fulfil her duties at both home and work.
Some other issues include the lack of role models and mentors, imposter syndrome, caring responsibilities outside of children, a poor culture that encourages “boys clubs” in boardrooms, a lack of support for returners and many more.
Why is having female leaders important?
More diverse teams, stronger outcomes
Diversity starts at the top – with more representative leadership, there are more ideas, perspectives and experiences to draw from. Employees will also be able to increasingly relate to the leaders and strive for these promotions themselves. Creativity also stems from a more diverse background and these solutions could potentially translate to excellent business ideas.
And having a more diverse boardroom also directly benefits the bottom line. A study conducted by Gallup found that the gender-diverse units had better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender. (5)
Companies have started to realise the importance of intrinsic values that modern-day employees seek, such as strong team culture, sense of belonging and alignment of personal goals with the organisation.
Research has shown that women leaders tend to engage via a more cooperative and inclusive work culture, displaying problem-solving techniques based on empathy and rationality. Women are also more likely to lead through understanding their employee’s beliefs and aligning them with their purpose. (6)
With more women in leadership, these intrinsic values that employees seek will be elevated, translating into positive outcomes such as higher job satisfaction and retention levels.
How can companies encourage greater levels of female leadership
The truth is in the data
Hard facts and figures will be the best starting point for any organisation looking to create a diverse workforce and leadership team. Attaining relevant data such as gender differentials in promotions and representation of women at the senior level can be extremely helpful to give guidance on where to begin implementing strategies channelled towards more women in leadership.
This must be coupled with full data transparency, commitment and professionalism. As we turn to hard facts, the management team and committee will have a measurable outcome, a goal to work towards and will be more likely to invest in grooming females into leadership positions, showcasing a successful investment in their diversity and inclusion strategy.
A highly functional support system
The theme of diversity and inclusion is huge with most companies championing it to a certain extent. That said, to have a truly diverse workforce, the infrastructure must be supportive and inclusive.
“Mom guilt”, a pervasive feeling of not doing enough or not doing things right is common amongst mothers. Most women undeniably feel a greater sense of responsibility for their families and kids. This is also one of the reasons why a good number of women, in their mid-careers aka potential leaders, make a life-changing decision, a turning point – to step away from their professional careers to become the main caregiver at home. If diversity and inclusion strategies are targeted to provide support for working moms, we are certain to see more women in leadership.
A support system can be deemed successful if a parent can achieve and see value in both their professional and personal lives. Revisiting and benchmarking company benefits of value to parents such as childcare and flexible work arrangements is recommended. When employees feel understood and valued, they will be more committed at work as well. In summary, the scales have tilted over the years to promote diversity and inclusion but there is still much more to be done. Identifying and acknowledging the current gaps is an excellent step forward but organizations will need to be more intentional with their strategies in the push for more women in leadership.
The change will also require effort from all sides and especially women themselves. Take the front row seat in driving your own career - push the boundaries and challenge the norms. Now is a unique time to be an advocate of change and through empowering each other, we will surely get there.