According to a McKinsey & Company research report, 40% of women (compared to 11% of men) in 2016 report feeling that their gender is inhibiting their career success. However, the gender disparity in the workplace exists even beyond individual perceptions. For example, in the same report, women were found to be 15% less likely to advance across organizational levels. The growing body of research on gender inequality points to a very real disparity in workplace opportunities and outcomes between men and women.
Problems are antecedents of solutions, and employers have a wide range of opportunities to be part of the effort in reaching gender equality in the workplace. Here are tips to support women’s role in the workplace as well as some benefits of women in the workplace.
Organizational policies and practices
While the gender gap is a complex societal issue, employers can become agents of change by reviewing and amending organizational policies that may be putting women at a disadvantage in the employment setting.
The suggestions below can be good starting points:
- Have a zero-tolerance harassment policy
- Provide employees at all levels with training to consciously work toward closing the gender gap. While majority of employees believe that their organizations see gender diversity as a priority, there appears to be a disconnect between men and women’s understanding of the challenges that women may face in their careers. The Women in the Workplace report found only 12% of men believed it was difficult for women to advance their careers due to fewer opportunities (McKinsey).
- Implement Affirmative Action initiatives for workplaces with an underrepresentation of women
Supporting women pursuing leadership roles
One implication of the research is that women have a more difficult time attaining leadership roles, particularly those in the C-Suite (Harvard Business Review).
Employers can support women seeking leadership roles in the following ways:
- Create a culture of mentorship and coaching. Research shows that informal mentoring relationships are best for long-term career development outcomes, and that male/female mentorships are more likely than female-female mentorships to lead to positive career outcomes (Ragins & Cotton, 1999)
- Engage interested candidates in leadership training, including effective negotiation skills
- Provide promotion opportunities based on merit
- Give more high-profile projects & accounts to qualified women
Supporting women with children
Employers have numerous opportunities to support the unique needs of women who are expecting or recently had children and are transitioning back into the work environment.
One primary opportunity comes through offering competitive parental leave benefits, those that provide more support beyond the unpaid 12-weeks provided under the FMLA. Once the timeframe for leave is exhausted, giving women flexible work options can allow them to transition back to work with less stress.
In addition, for those companies with the financial capability, providing on-site childcare or childcare credit can make an enormous difference in parents’ lives.
With data provided by the CDC, researchers at the University of Houston recently found that there is significant influence of workplace climate on mothers’ likelihood to continue breastfeeding their children. Specifically, women who had a supportive supervisor were 8 times more likely to continue this recommended practice than women whose supervisors did not provide support. Employers should provide nursing mothers with private spaces (lactation rooms) and regular breaks (EurekAlert).
Equality and organizational culture
The goal of implementing the practices mentioned above is to reach a climate of gender equality and diversity in the workplace. Gender diversity has been found to have a positive impact on organizational outcomes such as employee engagement (Gallup). An implication of this goal is the need to provide an equal opportunity for career and work-life integration support to both men and women.
Despite the provision of such opportunities, research continues to show that flexible work options and parental benefits continue to be underused.
Specifically, in the Women in the Workplace report mentioned previously, over 90% of both men and women feel their careers would suffer if they take advantage of parental leave benefits, benefits to which they are entitled (Forbes).
It appears that organizational culture might play a large role in whether or not workers feel there is a stigma attached to using such benefits. Employers who communicate their support for work-life integration (and gender equality overall) may ease the concerns of those who fear being penalized for taking advantage of these workplace benefits. Changing organizational climate is no easy task, but is certainly a worthwhile effort.