Despite the fact that half of the workforce is made up of women, only 26% are in executive positions. In some industries the number of female executives is downright abysmal. This flies in the face of the knowledge that having female leaders in business improves almost every aspect of doing business (including significant improvement in the financial success of a company). While much of the conversation surrounding this issue emphasizes the ways in which women should lean in to improve their chances at becoming leaders, research suggests that a major factor in this issue is systemic bias. So-called experts have suggested that women do not advance because they choose not to, because they leave to have children, and because they are not willing to make the same sacrifices. The truth is that leaning in only works up to a certain point. If barriers exist such as biased hiring and promotion policies, women will never advance at the same rates as their male colleagues.
Research suggests that many of the biases that prevent women from rising to leadership roles are so subtle (implicit) that they are difficult to address. We are used to tackling overt or explicit sexism, but what about the kinds of bias that masquerade as tried-and-true business practice? Or the kinds of discriminatory policies that appear to be for women’s benefit, but in fact force women to make unacceptable choices?
The bottom line is: if the only policies in place to advance women in the workplace are workshops on how they should communicate with confidence or what to wear while networking with their bosses, women will continue to advance at slower rates and you will not succeed in meeting your diversity goals.
Here are five things your company can do right now to improve gender equity in your leadership.
Issue an Anonymous Survey
Often the only data companies have on the reasons women leave or fail to advance to leadership positions is from exit interviews, and even those are not reliable because women will often avoid complaining about discriminatory business practices in fear of burning a bridge, losing severance, and/or gaining a reputation as a difficult employee – all of which might impact their career opportunities down the road. Waiting until women leave to gather data about why they are not advancing is not effective or proactive. Instead, consider issuing an anonymous survey to your employees so that they can be candid without fear of reprisal and so you can discover both policy-based barriers to female advancement as well as perceptions about the same. Polling both men and women in your company can produce surprising datasets about perception vs. reality when it comes to systemic bias. Above Glass Ceilings has developed a fully customizable survey designed to discover barriers to female advancement in the workplace. Contact us today for more information – we’d love to help you meet your diversity goals!
Educate Your Workforce
Many entry-level men and women are unaware of the challenges which face women from gaining entry into the upper ranks. At the entry-level, they might not experience any differential treatment based on gender or they believe that they have what it takes to succeed where so many others have failed. Educating your workforce about both the problem (retaining and advancing women) and the benefits of addressing the problem is half the battle. If your workforce is not made aware of the issue or your goals for addressing it, you will face ambivalence at best and hostility at worst (from both men and women) when you try to implement programs designed to support the advancement of your female employees. Include gender equity statistics in your quarterly reviews. Include a reading on workplace diversity at your next team-building seminar. Have your employees take an implicit bias test so they can see themselves how they might be harboring biases that affect their workplace behavior.
Accountability works best if it extends beyond your boardroom. Take the social media manager company Buffer as an example, which posted five times they failed at diversity and how they addressed these problems. Sharing your dismal diversity numbers or diversity initiative fails may be embarrassing, but doing this can go a long way in establishing your credibility with a progressive workforce and in shaping your corporate culture into one that values advancing women and minorities. Consider sharing the extent of your diversity problem and your goals for fixing it among your networks or to the wider world. This will not only light a fire under your company to meet its goals, but it will also distinguish you within your industry as both transparent and a leader in progressive business practices.
Don’t Turn the Turtle
You may remember the story about the good Samaritan who tried to help a turtle crossing a busy road by turning it around. This was, in fact, not helpful as the turtle needed to cross the road in order to lay its eggs or mate with its partner. Companies, often in an endeavor to help women advance, will institute policy changes without the input of the women themselves. For example, one manager decided to move a husband-wife team to different jobs so that the husband’s career path would not lose momentum and the wife would be on a less stressful job site so she could have the “flex time” needed to care for their child – this is in spite of the fact that she was the initial hire and he was just a bonus employee. While the male manager thought he was “helping,” he was, in fact, gendering childcare and compromising his female employee’s career potential. Luckily a female manager stepped in and pointed out how the company was effectively interfering in this couple’s childcare arrangements and making assumptions about them without consulting their wishes. Above Glass Ceilings can help you evaluate your existing policies to determine whether they are counterproductive to meeting your diversity goals.
Make the Business Case
Ample evidence exists of the business case for women’s equity in the workplace. From profitability to better workplace environments, increased numbers of women in leadership roles have positive impacts across a wide variety of industries. Use this data to make the business case for advancing women in your workplace. As sympathetic as many would be to an impassioned appeal for gender equity based on merit alone, nothing gets corporate leaders to sit up and pay attention like a report on how a new set of policies will positively affect the bottom line. Demonstrate how a little investment in advancing women now will pay off significantly in the future. This might be hard for some industries which lack statistically significant data on women in leadership roles or which continue to function relatively well with male-dominated corporate culture, but corporate culture as a whole is changing, and it is prudent to strategize how to get out ahead of that change.
Above Glass Ceilings is a corporate diversity consulting firm and advocacy group. To learn more about our services or to partner with us, please contact us using our contact form. You can also follow us on Twitter, like our page on Facebook, Connect with us on LinkedIn, and subscribe to our newsletter below.