LEADERSHIP / NOV. 10, 2014
version 2, draft 2

Gender Inequalities at Work: What’s the Solution?

Study after study has shown that, in spite of a range of efforts to reduce gender-based inequalities of pay and career opportunities, for many organisations, it’s ‘business as usual’: disparities between men and women persist.

Women are more socially and financially independent than ever before, and there is overwhelming evidence of the substantial economic and social benefits to be gained from greater equality for women. 

So why women are still held back and what is the solution?

A brief illustration of the problem

  •  Women account for less than 5 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs. They are significantly underrepresented in top-level positions.
  •  Amazon recently revealed that over half of its employees are men; around three-quarters of its people in leadership positions are male. Apple’s numbers are similar. Then there’s Google: an astonishing seventy per cent of its employees are male. Add Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook to the list of high profile companies with breathtakingly low levels of female employment.
  • In the UK, women represent just over 40 per cent of the workforce and over half of university graduates. Yet women make up just over 20 per cent of MPs; roughly the same percentage represents university professors. A mere 3 per cent hold chair-level appointments (boardrooms). Men are more likely than women to be linked to leadership positions in the UK and they earn an average of a whopping £140,000 more than women when you compare working lives. This is against the spirit and the law of the Equal Pay Act, which came into force in 1975.

Why does the problem exist?

According to behavioural scientists, the root of the problem lies in the “unconscious biases” that are prevalent in our society and which lead to the creation of stereotypes. These biases shape our worldview and affect the way we interact with people. According to Forbes an example of one such stereotype is that which suggests that “nice girls don’t negotiate”. Another stereotype labels confident, assertive women as ’pushy’. Still another is that men are more competent leaders. Although such sentiments seem and are outdated, they persist today.  

According to Abigail Payer from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at Kent University, the part played by stereotypes is one which should be addressed because stereotypes reinforce unhelpful beliefs about how both women and men are supposed to behave. Some diversity programs are aimed at raising awareness of gender biases, but there is now evidence to suggest that these and other approaches (such as quotas and mentoring networks aimed at raising the representation of women in the workplace), on their own, fall short of their goals.

So what’s the solution?

Decades of social science have shown that the problem of biases, which are so deep-seated, will persist unless interrupted. A promising solution put forward by Joan Williams, writing in the Harvard Business Review, is to focus on changing the systems that perpetuate gender biases. Williams identifies four key patterns of gender discrimination found in organisations:

“Prove it” – where scores of studies show that women are required to offer greater proof of their competence, compared with men.

Tightrope” – where women have to navigate stereotypes about how they are expected to behave whilst at the same time proving their equal competence to men.

Maternal wall” – activated by becoming a mother, this bias can lead to striking (and negative) results. A Stanford study found that women are less likely to be hired and promoted if they are mothers.

Tug-of-war” – this pattern occurs when, as a means of combatting discrimination, women seek to distance themselves from other women.

Bias interrupters are effective and can be as simple as using different language. For example, Williams describes a study whereby two versions of an advertisement were posted - one which stated that salary was “negotiable” and the other which did not mention salary. The result? For the advert which mentioned that salary was negotiable, there was a reduction in the pay gap between male and female recruits of a staggering 45 per cent.

Diversity programs and cultural initiatives are a great way to raise awareness of gender disparities, but they cannot on their own overcome deep seated conscious and unconscious biases. A more effective approach is to change the processes and systems that perpetuate such unhelpful biases –  the four patterns above are a good starting point.

Image via mic.com

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