How can we promote gender equality in the workplace?

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This International Women’s Day, it’s important to ask: why haven’t we made more progress towards gender equality? 

The finding that there are more men named John or David running big companies than all women highlights the extent of the issue.  Of the entire S&P 1500 companies, an analysis identified that 5.3% of CEOs were called John, 4.5% David, and only 4.1% were women.  Clearly, something is not right, and many organisations have started trying to right these wrongs.

The introduction of the gender pay gap has highlighted that collectively, the average hourly earnings for women in the UK is significantly lower than for men. ONS analysis reveals that this is mainly due to the fact that women are less likely to occupy the higher paying roles of ‘managers, directors or senior officials’. (1) But why?

Why are women less likely to have higher paying roles?

Gendered views of leadership

Gendered views of leadership are likely to be a significant part of the problem. Effective leaders are typically considered to be strong, assertive, decisive, agentic; characteristics stereotypically associated with men.  Of course, women can be strong, assertive, decisive, and agentic, but when they demonstrate these characteristics, they’re judged more negatively by both men and women compared to male professionals demonstrating the same behaviours. (2) A double-bind is created for women, whereby to be seen as an effective leader they have to demonstrate these agentic traits, yet when they do they face social and economic penalties for behaving counter-stereotypically.  

Fewer role models

Women also have fewer role models to look up to and learn from.  Organisational hierarchies in which men predominate not only provide few role models for women but also tend to perpetuate implicit beliefs that equate leadership with behaviours believed to be more common or appropriate in men.  Lack of role models also often leaves women grappling with these dilemmas alone and subconsciously – it can be helpful to share your experiences, to make these dilemmas explicit as well as normalising these experiences.

Lack of internal sponsorship

Women also tend to lack internal sponsorship.  Sponsorship involves senior leaders informally supporting and keeping an eye out for a more junior colleague, helping them navigate the organization, putting a good word in for them in discussions with other senior leaders, or putting their name forwards for key opportunities, for example.  Whilst both mentoring and sponsorship are important for a person’s development, sponsorship is particularly critical for progression, and women tend to receive less of it.  Women are less likely to have someone advocating for them within the business than men.  Instead, male and female mentors tend to offer development to women, rather than advocacy.  Critically, it’s the advocacy that women tend to miss out on.

Women are less likely to succeed in negotiating a pay-rise

The double bind can play out for women in more specific ways too.  Women are also statistically less likely than men to succeed in negotiating a pay-rise (3), potentially because it requires self-advocacy which contrasts with the stereotype of women as communal, concerned less about themselves than others. Research shows that mindful of the potential backlash they may receive, women hedge their assertiveness, use fewer competing tactics and get less. In contrast, when vouching for others, women achieve better outcomes as they don’t expect a clash with gender norms, so don’t engage in hedging. (4)

More women have flexible working arrangements

More women work part-time, many changing their working patterns after becoming mothers (38% of mothers work part-time compared to only 7% of fathers (5)), which often comes at a cost to progression. Many part-time women are dissatisfied with their quality of work and promotion prospects and feel they’re working below their potential. Almost a quarter report no chance of promotion. (6) On average, part-time workers’ negligible wage increases year on year are far below what would be expected in proportion to their full-time equivalents. (7)  Importantly, it’s not the time mothers spend out of employment on maternity leave, but more what happens when they re-join the workforce part-time that explains the widening pay gap. (8) The pay gap between mothers and fathers continues to increase for years after maternity leave, reaching a difference of 21% by a child’s 20th birthday. (9) 

What can be done about this?

Tackling these implicit barriers requires a multi-pronged approach, but here’s a few places to start:

Review policies, processes and practices

  • Flexibility in working patterns is essential, so challenge assumptions around why certain roles and responsibilities can’t be offered to part-timers, recognise outcomes rather than hours put in, be as flexible as possible on when and where work needs to be completed, or simply be more planful.  For instance, when overtime hours are scheduled three months in advance, men and women work a similar number of hours; but when those hours are offered at the last minute, men work nearly twice as many. 
  • Encourage flexibility for all, not just women. Full-time employees in the UK work some of the longest hours per week in Europe, but as a total household unit, when men work longer hours, women work fewer.   The same applies to uptake paternity leave – in Sweden, each additional month that a father stays on parental leave has been shown to increase the mother’s earnings by 6.7%. 
  • Many organisations have taken steps to reduce potential bias in their recruitment processes (such as anonymising job applications), and have seen improved gender balance as a result. However, the same attention must be paid to promotion, pay, and the even day to day allocation of projects and opportunities. Decisions about future positions should be based on what someone is capable of (in other words, their potential), not simply what they’ve achieved in the past.  It may be that an individual is capable of a lot more, but simply hasn’t been given the right opportunities. Focusing solely on past experience simply perpetuates these inequalities.

Challenge leadership (and gender) stereotypes

  • Encourage men and women to challenge their assumptions about what effective leadership looks like, as well as their perceptions of women when they behave assertively.  Targets for proportions of female representation at more senior levels can help, since exposure to female leaders breaks down gender stereotypes and reduces bias.  Targets have not only been shown to induce more talented women to put themselves forwards for positions but also help to create critical mass.  Without critical mass, members of a minority group are likely to be treated as tokens; their minority status makes them visible and easily reduced to their demographic characteristics.  In other words, a sole female board member is considered the spokesperson for women rather than as the expert in her field.
  • Provide support and development for female leaders to help them navigate the headwinds they face as a result of the unconscious bias relating to leadership and gender stereotypes.  This could include introducing a formalise sponsorship programme for high potential women, as without it, senior men naturally tend to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. 

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  1. ONS (2019). Gender pay gap in the UK: 2019. 
  2. See: Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb. (2011). Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women's Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 474-493.
  3.  Artz, Goodall, & Oswald. (2018). Do Women Ask? Industrial Relations, 57, 611-636.
  4. Amanatullah & Morris. (2010). Negotiating gender roles: Gender differences in assertive negotiating are mediated by women’s fear of backlash and attenuated when negotiating on behalf of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 256-267.;
  5. ONS (2017). Families and the labour market, England: 2017 ; More mothers with young children working full-time
  6. Warren & Lyonette (2018). Good, Bad and Very Bad Part-time Jobs for Women? Re-examining the Importance of Occupational Class for Job Quality since the ‘Great Recession’ in Britain. Work, Employment and Society, 32(4), 747–767; Tomlinson (2007). Female part‐time workers’ experiences of occupational mobility in the UK service industry. Women Management Review, 22, 305–318.
  7. Costa Dias, Joyce & Parodi (2018). Wage progression and the gender wage gap: the causal impact of hours of work by Monica, Institute for Fiscal Studies
  8. Francis-Devine & Pyper (2020). The Gender Pay Gap, Briefing Paper Number 7068, 6 March 2020, House of Commons Library
  9. Francis-Devine & Pyper (2020), Ibid.
  10. Bolotnyy & Emanuel (2018). Why Do Women Earn Less Than Men? Evidence from Bus and Train Operators
    Working Paper, November 28th, 2018
  11. Misra, Budig & Boeckmann (2011). Work-family policies and the effects of children on women's employment hours and wages, Community, Work & Family, 14, 139-157.
  12. Johansson, E. (2010). The effect of own and spousal parental leave on earnings. Swedish Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation
  13. Elsesser & Lever (2011). Does bias against female leaders persist? Quantitative and qualitative data from a large-scale survey. Human Relations, 64, 1555-1578.
  14. Niederle, Segal & Vesterlund (2012). How Costly Is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness, Management Science, 59, 1.
  15. Bohnet (2016). What Works: Gender equality by design. Harvard University Press.
  16. Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb. (2011). Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women's Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 474-493.

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