HR Roadmap: The Path Toward Gender Equality in the Workplace for 2017

HR Roadmap: The Path Toward Gender Equality in the Workplace for 2017

Elizabeth Silas-Havas

Society has changed technologically and culturally in such a short time, and yet gender equality in the workplace is still a pressing issue. On average, women get paid less than men, they’re less likely to be promoted, and they have fewer opportunities to accelerate their careers. HR leaders are in a position to monitor, address, and ultimately help solve this problem.

Gender equality in the workplace is about more than equal pay. In some industries, it’s about getting hired in the first place. More often, it’s about unbiased review processes and access to opportunities such as high-profile projects, face time with senior managers, and promotions.

Reasons for Gender Inequality in the Workplace

Let’s inspect why it’s still an issue. The 2016 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org points out that at each level within corporations, the percentage of women decreases. Yet women and men leave companies at about the same rate.

The first jump shows the biggest gap—far fewer women get that first promotion to manager. For every 130 men that get it, only 100 women do. This hurts their careers going forward.

Women are represented proportionally at most levels of education now in America, yet that alone has not closed the pay or promotion gaps. Women are paid less than men with the same educational backgrounds.

Gendered Occupational Sorting

Studies have found that perhaps as much as half the pay gap can be explained by occupational and industry sorting. More women choose lower-paying jobs and industries. More men choose higher-paying jobs—for example, in technology fields, and tech currently pays better than many other industries, which raises men’s salaries on average.

Fixing this is a long-term project. It requires encouraging more girls and women to study STEM and, further, to pursue careers in STEM areas even when they do not yet have many role models, mentors, or supportive peers in those fields.

But even that may not be enough.

Who’s Doing the Job Seems to Matter

Our attitudes about whose work is valued may need to change. Recent analysis of changes in gender dominance in jobs from 1950 to 2000 reveals that as women enter a male-dominated occupation and begin doing it more, the pay for that job drops.

The study by England and Levanon tracked the jobs that shifted during those five decades from being mostly done by males to females (and accounted for the change in the value of the dollar). Just a few examples illustrate their findings:

  • Parks and recreation wages declined 57%
  • Designers’ wages fell 34%
  • Biologists’ wages fell 18%

What’s more, the reverse occurred when more men entered a female-dominated field. Computer programmers were mostly women; as male programmers entered the field, the wages, status, and scope of those jobs increased.

Work Experience and Time Off

It’s long been established that part of this equation involves how much time women take off from work to bear and raise children. Many countries, including the United States, do not subsidize childcare, and parental leave policies vary greatly.

Although some major companies have made their parental leave policies gender-neutral on paper, women still use them more. Fewer than 1 in 3 new fathers use more than 10 days of leave—and less than 1 in 7 receive pay for those days. Organizations that can promote the use of parental leave by both genders may see long-term gains in their employer brand, allowing them to attract talent.

Flexible schedules are also attractive to employees with and without children alike, but these need to be accompanied by clear, consistent expectations about productivity so that using the flexible options does not impinge on pay raise and promotion opportunities unnecessarily.

Reluctance to Negotiate Higher Pay

This is an oft-cited reason for women’s lower salaries—they don’t negotiate pay as much as men do, or as well as men do. This issue may have an easy-ish fix, if organizations are willing to be more transparent.

In one randomized field experiment, the work environment was found to be key in whether women negotiated pay. Leibbrandt and List found that when there is no explicit statement that wages are negotiable, men are more likely to negotiate than women. However, when there is explicit mention that wages are negotiable, this difference disappears or reverses.

Gendered Expectations and Gender Bias

Unfortunately, women are still often hamstrung by conflicting expectations; many people value workplace behavior that is different from what they value in women’s behavior. For example, according to Women in the Workplace, women who negotiate for a promotion are 54% more likely to get one than women who don’t—but they are also 30% more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are “intimidating,” “too aggressive,” or “bossy.” They are 67% more likely than women who don’t negotiate to receive that kind of criticism. In many of our minds, then, what an “assertive, successful employee” does is still different from what a “woman” should do.

In addition, there are factors outside the workplace in play. People who do more in the home—both men and women—are less likely to aspire to senior positions at work. And women at all levels report doing more than half the housework and childcare, so this may be a big part of why fewer women currently aspire to top executive positions than men. As Women in the Workplace found, 43% of women who do an even half of the housework aspire to become top executives, but only 34% of women who do more than half the housework and childcare do.

Many people still hold dear some ideas about which gender should not only do more housework and childcare, but also who should adopt unpaid communication and organization roles within schools and communities, and who should take care of elders as they decline. These kinds of expectations and roles, whether they are internal or external, may keep some employees from believing they can compete for bigger projects and promotions.

Plain old bias and sexism still play a role, as well. Blau and Kahn estimate that 38% of the pay gap is based on discrimination: simply choosing to promote or pay more based on gender.

The Pathway Toward Gender Equality and Diversity

The Women in the Workplace report draws four key points for closing the gender gap in the workplace. Forward-thinking HR leaders can play a large role in each.

1. Motivate people to value gender diversity in the workplace

A majority of leaders within organizations say that gender diversity is a priority, but only 28% of employees say those leaders encourage an open dialogue on the topic. And only 4% of companies are fully transparent with their own people when it comes to their gender metrics.

From senior manager to entry level, people need facts rather than rumors about the existing levels of gender diversity and equity in the company. Many will also need information on how these factors benefit everyone; they may be accustomed to thinking of employment as a zero-sum game (“if more women get jobs in this industry, then fewer men will, and that puts me at risk”).

This can include cultivating regard for behaviors and traits that used to be traditionally seen as “female” that benefit organizations, such as fostering teamwork and cooperation, using emotional intelligence, attending to detail, and so on. These traits are, of course, often found in males, just as analytical thinking and competitiveness are often found in females. Consciously cultivating a value of both “sets” of qualities may be yet another step toward gender diversity and equality.

Of course, you don’t actually have to hypothesize about why having both women and men in any organization is beneficial. You can simply point to results. For example, Fortune 500 companies with the most female board directors did better financially, on average, than those with the least. And many studies, like this one by Hong and Page, reveal that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups when solving complex problems.

2. Ensure that hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair

A mere 4% of companies use a blind resume review process, even though it provides a great practical and legal way to avoid bias. It might seem like a hassle, but consider the case of American orchestras. In the 1970s, they consisted of about 5% women. Then most of them began auditioning candidates behind a screen so that the selection jury cannot see them. Sometimes the screen is only used for the first round, but even then it has a powerful impact: Researchers find it makes it 50% more likely that a female musician will advance to the final round. Many American orchestras today are 45–50% female.

But that’s hiring. What about promotion and pay? Well, only 57% of employees believe their manager’s review process uses clear and consistent criteria. Here’s an area every HR leader already prioritizes and should have in a continuous improvement loop. Input can come from several levels to clarify the performance expectations for each job. Reviews themselves can become shorter and more frequent (and Millennials are asking for this anyway).

3. Train people to avoid and discourage biased behavior

Managers need training on how to avoid bias in hiring and reviews, and how to push back when they see it happen. This requires a shift within company culture. Google has started theirs with a 60-minute training that covers all four of these key points in a short, approachable way. Microsoft has also released their full unconscious bias training for others to use.

These models may be a good starting point for your company to approach this internal shift by noting that bias and stereotyping are basic human processes for making sense of overwhelming amounts of input with shortcuts and assumptions; becoming aware of which of those shortcuts are useful and which cause harm is something that gets us all out of our habits and ruts of thinking. Approach the topic interactively as a way to think outside the box and get beyond our current assumptions—rather than as an effort to prescribe new rules for thinking or speaking.

4. Focus on results and accountability

Build a metrics system around this issue so you can see progress over time. No one person or group will break the glass ceiling for good, but if your company is gradually improving gender equity, measure that increasing headroom.

You can start by tracking gender at specific stages, such as application, interview, and promotion rounds, and then periodically examine salaries for comparable job positions by gender.

Tracking improvements over time will provide support for continuing the efforts that work. Your results can also be disseminated to help other organizations, demonstrate your leadership in this area in your industry, and boost your employer brand.

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