Gender equality is an ideal situation in which people have equal opportunities and receive respect, regardless of their gender. In practice, gender equality is a continuous process of reducing inequalities faced primarily by women, and most significantly by women of color.
Striving for gender equality in the workplace requires a combination of policy and cultural changes. These changes aim to bring all gender identities on par, in terms of opportunity, career progression, and income.
Though transgender and non-binary people may form a smaller proportion of the workforce, we must also consider their specific needs when developing gender equality policies.
What are the benefits of gender equality?
Besides the ethical consideration that gender equality is the fairest outcome, there are also practical benefits to businesses that strive to achieve this.
Firstly, there can be an increase in business performance. Research from McKinsey and Co has shown that profits and share performance can be up to 50% higher in companies with more women in senior leadership.
Furthermore, hitting diversity and inclusion milestones can lead to higher employee job satisfaction and lower turnover. This is because, as people are rewarded fairly and treated without discrimination, they can bring their full selves to work and have an incentive to stay for longer. There can also be an increase in productivity as a result.
By treating gender inequality as a threat to business growth, you can help put it on the high-priority agenda for management. This will ultimately lead to faster, positive action.
What areas are lacking gender equality?
The pay gap
The gender pay gap is the difference between what women and men earn at work. In the US, Pew Research found that the gender pay gap has not changed much between 2005 and 2020, with women earning 84 cents for every dollar earned by men. There are two main reasons behind the pay gap.
Firstly, accessibility to an industry or job seniority may differ between genders. Women face barriers when pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers and achieving senior roles in general. Secondly, for similar responsibilities and skill sets, women may receive less pay than their male counterparts in the same company.
A lack of promotion
Every year between 2016 and 2021, the Women in the Workplace study run by McKinsey & Co has found that women are promoted to manager at lower rates than men. For instance, at C-level in corporate companies, women represent about 24% of the workforce. In 2021, 41 (8%) of all Fortune 500 CEOs were women, and only six of the 41 were women of color.
For women and minority genders to advance at an equal rate to men, HR leaders must first understand the barriers faced (known as the ‘glass ceiling’). Barriers could include unconscious bias, restricted networking opportunities, and a lack of mentorship.
When a woman goes on maternity leave, there is a risk she won’t return to her job at the same seniority level—thus, motherhood bears a notable cost. The comparable cost is far lower for men, as they may choose not to take paternity leave or they are more likely to keep their position if they do.
Several federal laws exist to protect parents during pregnancy and parental leave, including the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). However, employers must ensure that managerial discretion does not override anti-discrimination policies.
A biased recruitment process
It is important to make job descriptions and interview questions gender-neutral from the get-go. Without care, societal bias may prevent certain groups of people from applying or progressing through the recruitment process.
One of the main stages where there’s a gender gap is the application stage. A LinkedIn Gender Insights Report found that, although recruiters tend to reach out to men and women at an equal rate after viewing their profiles, male applicants’ profiles are opened more frequently.
Furthermore, job descriptions emphasizing traits or incentives traditionally associated with men—say, a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude and free beer on Fridays—may encourage fewer women and non-binary people to apply.
Harassment and microaggressions
Harassment can involve any action intended to belittle or intimidate, while microaggressions are subtler behaviors which induce the same effect. For example, persistently asking someone if they have a partner can be considered harassment, while asking to touch a Black woman’s hair can be a microaggression.
Harassment and microaggressions can each have a negative impact on employees’ mental health, work satisfaction, and productivity. To combat this, your HR policy should clearly define each term and specify the disciplinary consequences.
Why is gender equality difficult to reach?
While not impossible, true gender equality is difficult to achieve as historical beliefs have seeped into the workplace over time. For example, women were once expected to give up their education and career when they married or had children. Today, this may translate to prejudice such as withholding a job offer from a qualified candidate due to their pregnancy.
Additionally, although the business benefits of gender equality have been proven, business leaders may lack the personal motivation to kickstart initiatives and cultural changes to achieve this goal. This is particularly the case if gender equality milestones aren’t set as numerical targets.
Finally, it takes more than your company alone to shift a systemic issue like gender inequality in your industry or geographic region. If there is a lack of understanding and action on this topic at macro-level, this could delay positive action being taken by your company leadership.
What strategies support gender equality?
While few can argue against the benefits of gender equality, it can be a challenge to get people on board. Being an active advocate requires making conscious decisions and having some difficult conversations.
Here are the top strategies that can support your gender equality ambitions.
Questioning age-old policies
To identify potential gender inequality in your business, you’ll first need to take inventory of all relevant HR policies. For instance, you may need to address an imbalance in maternity and paternity leave. A difference here can reinforce gender stereotypes by painting mothers as child carers and fathers as breadwinners.
Addressing unconscious bias
Unconscious bias relates to any prejudices someone may hold without their awareness. When it comes to groups of people, it is often arises because of common stereotypes held about these groups.
For example, an invitation to join an evening networking event may be withheld from Muslim women in the team, due to an implicit assumption that, if they don’t drink alcohol, they may not feel comfortable attending the event. One way to combat this is to give them a choice by inviting them and make any necessary changes to ensure everyone is comfortable.
Other examples of unconscious bias include assuming a female colleague is less senior than she actually is, presuming that mothers are less dedicated to their jobs than fathers are, and perceiving an outspoken woman to be too ‘bossy.’
Tracking intersectional data
Measuring annual progress against gender equality metrics (e.g., tracking the ratio of women to men in senior management) is crucial to making a positive change. However, the data should take intersectionality into account.
Intersectionality recognizes that people can experience two or more forms of social inequality, which can have a compounded negative effect on their workplace opportunities.
For example, women of color that are part of the LGBTQ+ community may get fewer promotion opportunities than straight white women—which can only be resolved if such intersectional data is being tracked.
Establishing safe spaces
A safe space is an environment or process in which employees are comfortable expressing themselves without fear of discrimination. This is of particular importance when employees wish to make a complaint.
A formal process for whistleblowing and informal meetings for women of color can each constitute the use of safe spaces in the workplace.
Mentorships are a great way to grow skills, confidence, and networking know-how at work. If you’re unable to assign mentors to each employee, focus on those with the most potential for promotion. Mentoring can help close the gap between men and women at managerial levels and above.
A zero-tolerance policy does not allow exceptions to a certain rule, meaning people in positions of authority cannot exercise discretion that may be subject to bias. Though seemingly drastic, enforcing zero-tolerance policies may quicken the journey towards gender equality.
For example, you could instate a zero-tolerance policy with regards to limiting career opportunities to pregnant employees—such as withholding a promotion or making them redundant—making it harder for managers to make biased decisions. You should ideally have a process in place to investigate allegations, as well as clear disciplinary consequences such as demotion or dismissal.
Gender equality is more than a worthy target—it is a process of continuous improvement. We must aim to diminish the differences in workplace opportunities and progression between men and women.
Taking an intersectional approach will help make gender equality policies even more effective. One means to achieve this could be to track the experiences of women of color and LGBTQ+ people in your workplace.
You can implement practical changes to make a difference in your company. For a start, you could measure the gender ratio at varied seniority levels and establish some mentorship programs. Through these efforts, you are taking steps to ensure a safer, more equitable experience for everyone in your workplace.