We have all heard the phrase “breaking the glass ceiling” as a metaphor for women fighting the odds of gender bias and making it to the top. But how can companies actively encourage this?
First, the good news: Globally, women have more access to education than ever before, which leads to a slew of benefits for everyone, not least in economic terms. The number of women in top positions are at an all-time high, most notably key players like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and many more, and movements like #metoo have generated huge support for women’s rights, especially in the workplace.
However, there is still a long way to go.
Many women working in normal offices are overlooked when a higher position is open and are simply never given the opportunity or support required to rise to the top. According to The Advocate Group, the percentage of large UK firms that have no female representative at board level is at 43%.
Many women face inequalities, especially if they are pregnant, and often find it difficult to re-enter the workplace after starting a family. This is because of the fear that they wouldn’t be as up-to-date as people who haven’t had a career break. However, moms who are re-entering the workforce are a minefield of untapped talent!
We’re lucky in Singapore, in that having live-in childcare is an affordable option, which means that women here often have the choice to take shorter breaks from work than in other countries, because they have 24/7 support at home. However even if women choose to take a few years off to focus on their family, it doesn’t discount their previous experiences and qualifications and often women who re-enter the workforce are more focused, and therefore more productive, than ever before, because there is so much to prove.
A diverse company means a wider range of people solving problems with different perspectives, churning innovative solutions to problems and appealing to a broader range of consumers. Investors realise this value, so many companies are jumping to embrace diversity, but unless it’s authentic it doesn’t always work.
I had the opportunity of attending the Women Icons Asia 2019 (where our Managing Director Kathryn Woof was invited to be a panelist) and learned about some of the unforeseen disadvantages to some of the policies that are supposed to promote diversity in the workplace.
For example, some companies have a quota of promoting a certain number of women or diverse individuals every year. While in theory this would be a step in the right direction, it can imply these individuals need handouts to rise to the top, and encourages the notion that they only got promoted because the company needed to hit that quota. If this quota is a tickbox and not looked at as a whole strategy, those promoted may not be given the support they need to succeed in the job or judged more harshly than their peers.
So instead of promoting underrepresented groups for the sake of a quota, try taking a different tack of investing in training and education to make sure they are well-equipped for the job, and the promotions will follow by themselves. Those who have been promoted will be better able to deliver in their new role and prevent rumours that they are undeserving of that promotion.
Rather than thinking that supporting these individuals is an act of charity or a means to tick boxes, look at it as a valuable investment! A higher-skilled employee, no matter their background, means better performance for the company.
Sexual Discrimination and Harassment
Sexual discrimination and harassment are also abundant in the workplace. In the European Union, 40 to 50% of EU women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. That is an astoundingly high number that contributes to “stereotype threat” - when people who are discriminated against start to believe in that stereotype and end up performing worse than they would normally. While office banter may seem fun and harmless (it usually is!), it helps to reflect and think about the impact it may have on the other person. The last thing you want is for your colleague to walk away feeling upset.
What can you do?
As a company manager, you can cultivate diversity, not just for gender, but for any minority group by:
Leveling the Playing Field - some people inevitably start out in life with a huge advantage on others. Make sure opportunities for advancement and training are there for everyone, particularly those who may have less formal qualifications or a more fragmented career path. Invest in your employees and you’ll reap the rewards.
Implementing Discrimination Policies - be clear with your team about what constitutes sexual discrimination and harassment, or any other kind of discrimination or inappropriate behaviour. Encourage a culture where everyone is sensitive about what is said or done around the office, and point out and deal with unacceptable behaviour.
Listening and Acting - It usually takes a lot of courage to come forward with a report or complaint, so if a member of your team raises a concern, show them you take any complaints about discrimination or inappropriate behaviour seriously, and act on it.
Focusing on Results - Don’t get caught up on whether the women (or men) in your office have to work around other commitments like childcare, focus on whether they get the work done on time and to a good standard. Parents who have to finish work on time for children are often miracle workers when it comes to getting a lot done in a short time frame!
Encouraging Progression - instead of putting quotas on promotions, be transparent about what results and behaviours are needed to progress to management, and give support to all employees who want to work towards promotion.
Avoiding Using Gendered Language - avoid using gendered language in review templates, job ads or job descriptions.
As an employee, you can contribute to a diverse and safe workplace by:
Rooting for Women Who Make It to the Top - it is not easy for a woman to bypass social disadvantages and land a top position. Celebrate this! Gender diversity is merely a stop on a long journey of inclusivity for all people.
Not Tolerating Discrimination or Harassment - this is especially important for men who want to support women. If you see a co-worker acting out of boundaries, point it out! Given the huge publicity around the #metoo movement, there’s no excuse for being unaware of how to behave in an appropriate way towards women. Either call them out personally if you feel confident doing so, or report them to HR if the matter is more serious. The workplace should be a safe space for everyone!
In this day and age, we are no longer concerned with or held back by how it has always been done. Instead, we are looking for ways to improve and move forward. Lead the change in your workplace today and you might find yourself asking, "Why has it not been this way all along?"
If you feel like you’d like some support or additional guidance to help you lead change, please ask us about our Coaching programs which can assist you in becoming a strong female leader in the workplace, or in transforming your workplace to be a safer and more inclusive work environment.