Despite the progress in recent years, women continue to be both underrepresented in leadership and undervalued at work. To add to that, the pandemic measures were far more consequential for women, resulting in many spheres of losses. This International Women's Day, let's take a moment to reflect on the current issues faced by women in the workplace.
Despite the challenges of the last few years, despite burnout and despite the gaps in gender parity, women continue to disproportionately step up to the challenge of transformational leadership. Yet women continue to be both underrepresented in leadership and undervalued in the workplace.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), at the current pace, the Global Gender Gap in Economic Participation and Opportunity would take 268 years to close. This is the second-largest of four key gender gaps (including also Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment), with women globally at only 58% parity with men.
The Women in the Workplace Report 2021 showed the “broken rung” in corporate America persists. For every 100 men promoted, only 86 women are. Though in 2021, women of color were finally promoted at nearly the same rate as women overall - 85 for every 100 men.
Women in general make up 48% of entry level employees, which narrows to 35% of senior management and 24% at the C-Suite. Women of color experience the harshest drop off in representation, at over 75%: they represent 17% of entry level employees but only 4% of the C-Suite.
The pandemic measures of 2020 were far more consequential for women, resulting in many spheres of losses. Female employment around the world declined by 4.2% in 2020 versus the prior year, compared to 3% decrease in employment among men - with female dominated sectors such as hospitality, food services and personal care especially hit.
The double-shift brought on by remote work and remote schooling contributed to women’s increased stress levels, difficulty integrating work and life, and rapid attrition from the workforce.
The Women in the Workplace Report found 42% of women felt often or almost always burned out (and that jumped from 32% in 2020), compared to 35% of men. Whereas 1 in 4 women were considering downshifting or leaving their careers a few months into the pandemic, 1 in 3 were doing so in 2021. Not only are women carrying the brunt of childcare responsibilities in the remote working office, but the researchers found they are also carrying more of the collectively-minded leadership initiatives at work.
When it comes to supporting well-being and inclusion in the workplace, employees with female managers are more likely to report their manager provides emotional support, checks in on their well-being, helps them navigate work/life challenges, works to ensure the workload is manageable, and helps take actions to prevent or manage burnout.
Senior-level women are twice as likely (1 in 5) as their male counterparts (1 in 10) to spend significant time on DEI work that falls outside of formal job responsibilities. They are more likely to recruit from and support underrepresented groups, be allies to women of color, to educate themselves, to speak out again discrimination, and to advocate for, mentor or sponsor women of color. With this trend, DEI is at risk of becoming the new unpaid, office housework.
Also, while organizations have embraced flexibility, which is desirable to women and contributes to well-being, boundaries need to be established to keep flexibility from translating to “always on.” Only a third of employees have been given guidance for delineating between work and personal time, whereas a third feel they need to be available 24/7 - and 57% of employees who feel the expectation to be always on are reporting burnout, compared to only 26% among those who do not feel that expectation.
Micro-inequities are “cumulative, subtle messages that promote a negative bias and demoralize” - and when it comes to the sustained gender imbalance in the workplace, these play a big role in reaffirming the status quo of power dynamics every day.
Underrepresented amidst leadership, a woman would be more likely to experience slights of attention and power such as her intended listeners multitasking on the phone while she is speaking, being interrupted mid-sentence, having her question overlooked, rolling of eyes, receiving less eye contact from the speaker within a room of men, and having her ideas dismissed or mis-attributed to a man. Admittedly, many of these slights are not intentional and, not surprisingly, most men are not even aware this is occuring.
To consciously alter the subtle power dynamics at play in gender, leaders must be situationally attuned to identify the presence and impact of these behaviors, as well as actively counter the path of bias - such as returning the conversation to the woman who first raised the idea, giving a woman the same attention a man had in speaking, or meeting eyes or taking questions from everyone in the room. The most critical step is for men to pay attention and intentionally observe whether and when this occurs; only then can they take action.
The presence of a male ally who is vocally supportive of gender equality both reduces anticipated feelings of isolation for women and increases the anticipation of support and respect. Men who speak up on behalf of other women are actually more likely to be seen positively and taken seriously by other men. When women feel they have strong allies, they have a greater sense of inclusion and more energy and enthusiasm at work. Yet too often, men are uninvolved on the gender equality front.
Several years ago, Catalyst identified barriers to men being actively involved in advancing the parity of women in the workplace. 3/4 of men interviewed felt apathy was a major factor, either lacking concern or a compelling reason to be involved. 3/4 also said fear played a role - whether fear of getting it wrong when speaking out, fear of losing the ground men hold or fear of being judged by other men.
Men from the dominant group rarely experience the challenges and exclusionary experiences that impact women, which can mean they dismiss or underestimate their occurence, and ultimately means they aren’t engaging in discussions about them. Studies show that when men value a sense of fair play, the awareness of inequities is what spurs them on to take action. When men are framed only as the problem, rather than invited into discussions that increase awareness of these challenges, it hinders constructive solutions.
To distill apathy among men, the negative consequences of gender biases on both sexes (not just women) must be made evident. To disarm self-protection among men, gender equity needs to be reframed as a win-win for everyone, not zero-sum where gains for women mean losses for men. The more positive interactions that happen with “others” in the workplace, the less likely dominant group members demonstrate prejudice and exclusion.
To counter lack of confidence and fear of backlash in speaking on gender equity, more learning opportunities for men to become inclusive leaders are needed. Men are more willing to speak up when masculine anxiety, which impacts most men in the workplace, is reduced.
The inequalities in the workplace leadership journey are not a consequence of women's confidence deficit or imposter syndrome. Taken too far, these notions keep organizations from acknowledging a systemic undervaluing of women in the workplace.
In order to address the broken rung, the Women in the Workplace authors suggest companies set goals for women in first-level management, implement diverse slates for hiring and promotion, put evaluators through unconscious bias training, establish clear evaluation criteria and put more women in position for the step up. Transparency is also key with entrenched biases - the wage gap, for example, is a result of often unspoken salary differences between men and women.
When it comes to women carrying a disproportionate burden around DEI work, the authors stress that “companies need to double down on accountability.” While 2/3 of companies say gender and racial diversity are important business priorities, only 1/3 of them hold managers accountable to delivering on those priorities. Even among those that do, less than half include progress on diversity metrics into performance reviews or provide financial incentives for performance. If the positive interpersonal leadership behaviors demonstrated by women (and men) were truly acknowledged and rewarded in performance assessments, inclusion and retention would increase overall.
“Companies need to incentivize and reward the things that women are doing to create these better working cultures," says Jess Huang, co-author of the report. "This helps all employees because if it's rewarded, more leaders will do it.