While women have been campaigning for equality for many decades, gender parity is still a long way off. According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap Index, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a full generation to the projected amount of time it will take to reach gender parity, in large part because women were forced to leave work to care for their families.
The Global Gender Gap Index reports that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to reach full parity. The sad truth is that gender parity in the labor force is at the lowest level ever measured by the index, which was first published in 2006.
“Every business in the world needs to know there’s a big, big problem around lack of parity in the workplace, and they need to take action to do something about it,” said Katie Litchfield, founder of WeQual, a global organization dedicated to increasing equality and diversity in the world’s largest companies.
It’s a dire picture. And it’s been a dire picture for a long time. But, even though the data shows regression, there’s hope to be found in the growing consensus that gender parity has a positive impact on businesses, families and societies.
McKinsey’s research, for example, has found that tackling the global gender gap could improve a company’s profitability by around 25%. Meanwhile, BCG reports overcoming the gender gap in the workplace could improve cognitive development in children thanks to more equally shared childcare. Further research by Bank of America Merrill Lynch suggests more equality in business could boost global GDP by as much as $28 trillion.
There’s a long road ahead to achieving gender parity in the workplace, but there’s reason to be optimistic. All around us, there are inspiring examples of businesses looking to tackle the global gender gap at every stage of a woman’s career. Pioneering companies and institutions around the world are investing in innovative programs, policies and initiatives to advance women in the workforce across the full career lifecycle.
HELP AT THE FIRST HURDLE
Achieving equality at work begins in education. STEM fields are a prime example: Less than a third of female students choose to study higher education courses in subjects such as math and engineering, and only 3% of students joining information and communication technology (ICT) courses across the globe are women.
This is a problem. According to the United Nations’ website, “Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and, therefore, also half of its potential. Gender equality, besides being a fundamental human right, is essential to achieve peaceful societies, with full human potential and sustainable development.”
Teniel Jones is president and CEO of Base 11, a national organization dedicated to helping women and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) blaze a trail in STEM industries.
“I think the most apparent challenge female students face in the education system is sexism,” said Jones. “There is an ill-conceived perception that women can’t learn or study in the same fields men can, and these perceptions start at birth. We set up different gender expectations for boys and girls, which translates to STEM.”
For example, boys are traditionally dressed in blue and girls in pink. Boys are encouraged to pursue sports and fishing while girls are encouraged to play with Barbie dolls and dance. “All of these activities have value regardless of gender,” said Jones. “Unfortunately, when it comes to math and science these same gender perceptions are applied resulting in women not being encouraged with the same level of vigor to enter these spaces and are not completely supported or well-received when they do.”
In fact, women only make up 27% of the STEM workforce, according to the US Census Bureau. And the numbers are even worse for women of color. Jones and here team, however, believe there is power in seeing female students achieve what feels impossible. Base 11’s offerings and programs start with high school juniors.
We need to encourage young women to be interested in STEM. We need to create environments where they can be successful. We need to change the narrative in classrooms, in board rooms, in labs, and in executive offices.Teniel Jones, president and CEO of Base 11
Jones and her team have worked hard to connect young women to female leaders – including engineers, scientists, CEOs, COOs and CFOs – in core industries. “These successful leaders share their journeys and provide an inside look at the ‘playbook’ they used to make their way in STEM careers,” Jones said. “We create a safe space where female students and early career adults can try, learn and fail without fear of judgment.”
This safe space is often in a virtual classroom or in one of Base 11’s national innovation centers– a place for experiential learning, where mentors to encourage female students to enter into competitions and participate in conferences and virtual sessions where questions can be asked without fear of reprisal. Base 11 also runs hands-on courses like the Aerospace Mentor Program (in partnership with CalTech), the Autonomous Systems Engineering Academy and the STEM Entrepreneur Program, as well as a series of innovation challenges that encourage students to take concepts and apply them.
For instance, in Base 11’s recent Parity Project Innovation Challenge, which solicits proposals in science and technology to help achieve economic parity for Black America, Nova Sportsman, a high school sophomore and participant in the University of Washington’s Maths, Engineering and Science Achievement program, submitted a proposal on how to solve period poverty in underserved communities. The proposal struck a chord with Jones and her team.
“A woman’s ability to afford sanitary products has a direct impact on whether she is able to go to school, missing potentially a quarter of the month in the classroom, and ultimately affecting her educational success and employment as well,” Jones said. “In the midst of sharing her technology-based solutions, my colleagues and I – men and women alike – learned about the ‘pink tax,’ in which manufacturers charge up to 50% more for products simply because they’re branded for women. . Health and well-being are not a luxury, but a necessity. They should be seen as such, versus an impediment to thriving. The learning goes both ways and opportunity for change is ever-present.”
Since its inception in 2014, Base 11 has succeeded in helping over 14,000 students across the United States pursue their careers in STEM and entrepreneurship, 45% of which are female. “We aim to cumulatively accelerate 100,000 students and early career adults in STEM and STEM entrepreneurship by 2030, with a focus on empowering women and BIPOC,” Jones said.
ELIMINATING GENDER BIAS FROM RECRUITING
Having the right skills for the job is an important first step. The next stage is the application process. But there is evidence that gender bias – whether implicit or explicit – too frequently influences the hiring process in ways that threaten progress toward parity.
In 2021, Paris-based employment association A Compétence Egale worked with semantic analysis firm Proxem, now part of Dassault Systèmes, to review almost 500,000 job descriptions in search of biases.
“We found that almost 78% of job descriptions contained gender discrimination or bias,” explained Charlotte Corchete, project manager for the association. “Discriminatory job posts are those with a specific request for a male or female profile, while bias is shown through a lack of inclusive writing or the use of masculine or female adjectives.”
An obvious example might be a post that says “male applicants are preferred.” In theory, this type of overt bias is illegal. However, Corchete said employers often use more subtle language that, while not illegal, shows gender bias.
“For example, a post might say, ‘We are looking for a confident, assertive candidate for a leadership position,’ which may appeal more to men, and less to women,” she said. “However, we would recommend the company describe the job rather than the candidate. A better approach would be to say, ‘this position requires the ability to make well-reasoned decisions and to demonstrate the certainty of opinion. The job involves leading a team’.”
78% of job descriptions contained gender discrimination or biasA Compétence Egale analysis
To tackle the problem, A Compétence Egale has created a free online semantic analysis tool that optimizes job advertisements and job descriptions to ensure a broad and diverse spectrum of candidates while respecting equality principles. “By correcting discrimination and bias in job advertisements, we are helping to encourage more women to apply and thus contribute to gender parity in the workplace,” said Anne Gallot, general delegate for A Compétence Egale.
This is just one half of the recruitment problem. The other half, Litchfield said, is that many women lack confidence when applying for executive roles and struggle to combat the internalized sexism of the workplace.
That’s why she founded WeQual. Litchfield wanted to create an environment where women are building up women to take chances and pursue opportunities that would advance their careers.
“Our mission is to achieve 50/50 gender parity at the world’s largest companies,” Litchfield said. “We’re doing this in two ways. We’re creating a community where women can join together to give each other the confidence they need to feel supported. And we’re also working with organizations like MasterCard, Kellogg’s, Verizon and Coca-Cola – traditionally male-dominated companies – to really instigate change. These companies sponsor the WeQual awards, which honor talented women, and many CEOs from these organizations speak on the WeQual podcast to share how they are supporting women.”
And it’s working. Since WeQual was founded, over 200 female executives from leading companies around the world have been identified and championed as winners of the WeQual awards alumni. “We’re making more and more progress every day,” Litchfield said.
SUPPORTING FLEXIBLE WORKING
While many women successfully pursue a career in their early years, a large proportion opt out when they start a family. In fact, 69% of women say they feel pressured by society to put family ahead of career, according to Silver Swan Recruitment’s Women in the Workplace report. And globally, over 2 million mothers left the labor force in 2020.
But there are serious implications for businesses when women leave the workforce. The latest Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey finds that, by failing to retain women leaders, companies risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too. This exacerbates the problems
companies are already experiencing as a result of poor diversity – it can stifle innovation, hamper their ability to attract top talent and even turn off investors.
Allison Grealis, president of Women in Manufacturing, a global trade association dedicated to providing year-round support to women who have chosen a career in the manufacturing industry, said the lack of flexible work arrangements is one of the biggest reasons women give up their careers – particularly in male-dominated industries like manufacturing.
“Our recent research found that the top priorities of professional women are flexible working practices and on-site childcare,” Grealis said. “It’s really difficult for manufacturers to give flexibility to women working on a production line, for example, because this role is so tightly tied to manufacturing operations.”
However, some of the most innovative manufacturing companies have seen success because they are supporting women with responsibilities outside of their work. This means that, once they have punched in, they are able to be present because they know their children are cared for.
“They’ve deployed programs, for example, that include on-site childcare and flexible work schedules,” Grealis said. “Or they’ve organized school transport and after-school activities. They are also offering employee benefits such as health care, child care and medical leave.”
The benefits of helping reduce work-life conflict are seen far beyond manufacturing. The global COVID-19 pandemic opened the door to remote working for many – and this has had a positive effect on women in the workforce. The Modern Workplace Report from Care.com and Mother Honestly found that the majority of men and women (77%) believe that the wide adoption of remote work has created a more even playing field for career advancement across gender lines. Women report increased access to paid time off and sick time, more flexible hours and improved deadline flexibility.
MAKING IT EASIER TO RETURN TO WORK
When women do find it necessary to leave the workplace, they often leave a hole that hurts organizations. But smart companies are finding innovative ways to attract talented women back.
Returnship programs, for example, aim to make the move back into work after a hiatus less daunting. In many cases they will reskill or upskill women for roles that will help them return to their former career paths or embark on new ones. Deloitte’s Return to Work program includes soft skills training, coaching and feedback sessions – as well as agile working.
Gomathi Ramanathan, a senior consultant in the Strategy & Operations department at Deloitte, found the Return to Work program to be particularly impactful, after a long hiatus.
“My seven-year career gap was taken to look after my son and I was quite anxious about how I would get back into the workplace,” she said in a Deloitte press release. “Before my career break, I worked in consulting and always knew I wanted to go back but wasn’t sure how the gap in my CV would affect my chances.
“That’s why Deloitte’s Return to Work was so important for me. I didn’t feel disadvantaged because of my time away from the office. The program gave me technical training as well as other support to help me build confidence. I now work four days a week and the flexible working culture at Deloitte has really helped me to balance my personal and work life.”
We’ve seen that women face equality challenges throughout their careers – it starts with school and the sad truth is that it never stops. In fact, a significant number of women have felt they had no choice but to quit their job because of a later life stage that is often seen as taboo in the workplace: menopause. One in 10 UK women say they have left their job because of menopause, and 17% of women in the US have either quit or considered quitting their job due to menopause symptoms.
Recognizing this trend, multinational premium drinks company Diageo is actively working to destigmatize menopause so that employees are empowered to ask for what they need without fear of punishment or judgement.
“This begins with listening carefully to our colleagues and creating an environment where open, and often uncomfortable conversations can take place,” wrote Louise Prashad, global talent director at Diageo, in an OpEd piece on the company’s website. “We are also actively encouraging all our people to build their understanding of how menopause impacts women in the workplace and their personal lives. This needs to be backed up with tailored and practical support that can be easily accessed, recognizing that every woman will have a unique experience through menopause.”
The result is a workplace where every employee is able to prosper. “We are committed to creating a supportive workplace where every person experiences dignity at work and feels valued, respected and free to succeed,” Prashad wrote.
TOWARD A BETTER FUTURE
Our world of work is unequal. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can’t be if we want to reach our full potential.
From education to recruiting to returnships, there’s work to be done at every level to support women and girls and promote gender equality in the workplace. But it has to be intentional, it has to be authentic and it has to happen at scale.
“I think it is incumbent upon each one of us to do our unique part,” said Base 11’s Jones. “We need to encourage young women to be interested in STEM. We need to create environments where they can be successful. We need to change the narrative in classrooms, in board rooms, in labs, and in executive offices. We need to address the pay gap, facilitate mentorship, and advocate on a local and national level.”
There’s a saying: “You can’t be what you can’t see,” which dates back to the American civil rights movement. There’s a reason this saying, decades later, is still so often used when describing gender inequality and the hard work that must be done to achieve parity. Women make up half the population and nearly half of the workforce, but hold a fraction of executive positions and run less than 5% of global FORTUNE 500 companies. It’s not just that young women and girls don’t see enough females leading teams or running companies; it’s even harder to find senior leaders – male or female – who model work-life integration and truly promote cultures of inclusion.
Jones offers a word of advice for any business looking to do better. It’s her own version of that oft-cited phrase.
“Don’t just tell a female student what she can do – show her,” Jones said. “Support women pursuing advanced degrees and certifications, hire female faculty and leadership, put women in the C-suite, and trust them in the highest positions of power. And don’t wait until they have already raised their children or cared for their families. We confront the stereotypes daily and changing the story will require all of us. Parity requires us to look at a woman, see her remarkable potential, and provide a place of empowerment where she can bring her full set of skills, perspectives, insights, and voice to the space.”