Three years ago, we wondered out loud how certain roles and professions have been assumed to be gender-conforming and how the same reflects on the world’s largest search engine. We’re also happy to report inclusion has since become a business priority and that the gender diversity, at least in Google Image results, has increased for searches like doctor, CEO, engineer, etc.
It is promising to see organizations undertaking pay audits and determining if their recruitment and compensation policies are gender-neutral, business giants setting up sexual harassment committees and taking complaints more seriously, maternity policies worldwide getting a realistic makeover, and to reach a point where more women are in the workforce and hold leadership positions than ever before.
But it is important to recognize that this is an ongoing and a rather long journey. Now, more than ever before, leaders, employers, and employees need to work together towards a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace. Let us take a look at a few more challenges that need to be identified and given due attention by leaders and employers all over the world:
Facing Stereotypes and Bias
If you thought that women employees need to dodge implicit and explicit biases only during the recruitment process and interviews, think again. Even after joining the workforce, women usually have to work hard to dispel stereotypes and prove themselves. As the McKinsey’s Women in Workplace report shows, these biases (or micro-aggressions, as identified in the report) can take several forms; namely, needing to provide evidence of competence and skills, being questioned in the area of expertise, being addressed in a less-than-professional way, or being subjected to demeaning remarks. Worse still is the fact that there is a fundamental difference in the perception of what constitutes workplace sexism by men and women, which makes it harder to identify and remedy the issue.
The challenge persists even after women assume managerial and leadership roles, as they need to put in extra effort to voice their opinions and be taken seriously by their peers. Studies and surveys have often reported worrying numbers on how women are treated in the workplace and how there is a sense of being complacent with the status quo. These gender biases make it tougher for women to voice their opinions openly and be taken seriously, particularly in male-dominant industries, which can have a detrimental impact (https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/survey-33-of-women-in-tech-have-considered-switching-jobs-because-of-the-industrys-men).
Workplace Safety and Security Challenges
Some of the most basic workplace constituents that determine safety and security that are usually a non-issue for male employees are often of great concern to their women counterparts; for instance, the location of the office or the official work timings. A joint study by FICCI and EY found that women employees in India have concerns like the lighting of the parking lot, being the last one to be dropped home at night, being asked to stay back for a late night meeting, safety of the hotel and transportation during official business travel among other things. The fact that women employees need to continually assess risks in their workplace environment and be on guard is bound to impact their performance and productivity.
Career Progression Opportunities
Consider this – only 23 of the Fortune 500 companies are headed by a woman currently. McKinsey’s Women in Workplace 2018 report shows that female employees continue to be under-represented at every level; are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and far less likely to be promoted into them. That’s not all – nearly one in five women respondents in the survey report say that they are often ‘the only woman’ or ‘one of the only women’ in the room at work and this is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles.
“This heightened visibility can make the biases women face especially pronounced”, the report adds. It also states that being an ‘only’ often leads to significantly worse work experience, improves the instances of micro-aggressions, and enhances the chances of unprofessional and demeaning remarks. The bottom line is that women employees need to work harder to prove themselves and progress, and they often operate in a smaller margin of error as compared to men. Until such a time comes that women need not work harder to be taken seriously and be eligible for the same opportunities as men, the odds will continue to be stacked against them.
Lack of Industry Mentors and Networks
The lack of women in leadership roles also results in a scarce number of mentors for young women professionals. Add to that the covert ways in which networking opportunities perpetuate the ‘old boys’ club’ phenomenon, and it isn’t hard to put two and two together. Despite the fact that the number of women leaders has been increasing over the last few years, they comprise of a minuscule minority, which means that there aren’t nearly enough role models for young professionals to look up to and learn from. Experts have flagged the lack of women entrepreneurs, rigid leadership models, and lack of access to networks and sponsors as one of the biggest, yet often unidentified, barriers to women employees.
What can employers and leaders do?
While most of the challenges above need a collective effort from multiple stakeholders, it is never too late for organizations and leaders to commit towards building a fair, safe, and open workplace culture. McKinsey says that setting the right targets, establishing fair reporting mechanisms, and ensuring accountability is the first step. Then, comes taking a hard look at existing hiring, compensation, and promotion practices, followed by adopting new policies that make the workplace inclusive, diverse, and respectful and reduce the ‘only’ experience for women employees. Companies need to take more decisive actions and consider gender diversity like a business priority and creating a fair and equal workplace culture with inclusive policies. Some have already laid the groundwork to ensure that their workforce is diverse and inclusive.
The issues highlighted above might possibly overlap and feed into each other, but they all stem from unchecked and unrecognised beliefs that certainly have no place in this century. The events of the last few years have forced employers and organizations to shed their complacency and take decisive action towards making the workplace safe and inclusive for all their employees. However, the only way to ensure that it doesn’t take another 202 years for women to catch up with men is to increase the momentum of these initiatives, sustain a meaningful dialogue, and formulate comprehensive D&I policies for all industries.