The Untapped Competitive Edge: Women
The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace from both societal and business performance perspectives are undeniable, and yet women remain significantly underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline and are a significantly underutilized source of talent and business insight.
Although there are several factors restricting women from reaching their career potential, this post will focus on three critical barriers that must be overcome to enable change: 1) Cultural and Societal Norms that impact the double burden syndrome; 2) Corporate Policies and Organizational Culture that influence second-generation gender bias and 3) Individual Beliefs and Mindsets that favor lower career ambitions.
In recent years, a number of credible institutions have provided in depth looks at gender diversity and assessments of the state of women in the workplace, including the correlation between gender diversity and overall business performance. Despite women controlling an estimated 65 percent of global consumer spending and decades of evidence demonstrating the economic and social benefits of effective gender diversity in the workplace, studies consistently show that women remain underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline and are a significantly underutilized source of talent and business insight, Extensive research makes a strong and consistent societal and financial business case for accelerating women in the corporate leadership pipeline and closing the gender gap in order to ensure effective representation of women in management, leadership and decision-making positions.
So, what is holding us back from creating a gender inclusive culture in the corporate world? Are there inherent factors affecting women from achieving the same success as our male counterparts?
Although there are several factors restricting women from reaching their career potential, this post will focus on three critical barriers that must be overcome to enable change. In addition, we outline some practical and actionable steps that can be taken today to optimize the benefits of gender diversity in your organization.
Culture and Societal Norms
Culture and societal norms influence our beliefs and behaviours and set expectations on the roles of men and women. Over the last 50+ years, the roles of men and women in society have evolved with an increasing number of women entering the paid workforce. Canadian data shows that in 1953, 24% of women participated in the paid workforce compared to 82% in 2014. During the same period, participation of men in the paid workforce decreased slightly from 96% in 1953 to 91% in 2014. 
Interestingly, the unpaid domestic labor taken on by women has not decreased proportionally to their increased paid workforce participation. This has directly contributed to one of the most significant challenges facing many working women today. The double burden syndrome is the combination of paid work and unpaid domestic responsibilities. McKinsey , found that women are responsible for taking care of the large majority of unpaid domestic work, reporting that 54 percent of women do all or most of the unpaid domestic work, compared to 22 percent of men. Once women have children, they become 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the unpaid domestic work.
What would it take to change this societal norm and remove the double burden syndrome?
It has been demonstrated that when governments enforce public policies that support gender diversity, the representation and contributions of women in the workforce improves and the proportion of unpaid domestic work performed by women begins to shift. Effective human rights laws, equal pay, childcare infrastructure, tax systems and paid family leave can all support women in joining and progressing in the workforce and support reducing the demands on women for unpaid domestic responsibilities. However, enforcing new laws and policies against gender bias alone are not enough.
Corporate Policies and Organizational Cultures
Over the last 50 years, there has been much progress across the developed world to address first generation gender discrimination in the workplace (intentional acts of bias against women). However, women in today's workforce can experience a much more discreet form of bias called “second-generation gender bias” that can impede their career advancement. These are work cultures and practices that appear neutral but reflect masculine values and life situations. For example, effective leaders are most often described as confident, assertive and strong – masculine attributes. Yet when women adopt similar leadership styles, they can be perceived as aggressive, abrasive, and uncaring. If a woman leader demonstrates more female attributes, including collaboration, empathy and nurturing, she can be viewed as lacking the skills needed for effective leadership.
Another example of second-generation gender bias is the “anytime, anywhere” expectation. In today’s digital age, it is now common to expect employee availability and geographic mobility anytime, anywhere. This anytime, anywhere expectation generally increases as one progresses up the corporate ranks, making it more difficult for women who face a double burden syndrome to find positions that can accommodate both their paid and their unpaid commitments. Women are more likely to take time off for maternity leave, work part time or choose jobs with flexible schedules that don’t take them away from home for long periods of time. Without effective work cultures and practices, a woman aspiring to climb the corporate ladder can feel forced to choose between career or family, rather than finding an option to pursue and be successful at both.
Individual Beliefs, Mindsets and Unconscious Bias
As a result of the double burden syndrome and second-generation gender biases, there are fewer women in management, leadership and decision-making positions resulting in fewer female role models and mentors to inspire the next generation. Consequently, women early in their careers can be prone to adopt a mindset that favours lower career ambitions or a belief that they can’t “have it all” when it comes to their career and personal life.
The lack of exposure to women role models and limited access to women mentors directly impacts women representation in the corporate leadership pipeline. McKinsey (2017) found that women have less access to the people and opportunities that advance careers and experience a disadvantage in their daily interactions. This uneven playing field in the workplace has been shown to contribute to significantly lower promotion rates in the early stages of the career from entry to manager, with 130 men are promoted to every 100 women, resulting in fewer women ending up in the leadership pipeline and one in five senior executives being a woman.
The lack of exposure to women leaders and mentors makes us even less likely to believe in our own opportunity for growth and development and may be contributing to lower confidence and career ambition. Evidence also demonstrates that women are less self-assured than men and that confidence can impact success similar to competence. According to the 2014 article on “The Confidence Gap”, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both - but their performances do not differ in quality.
How do we fix this problem?
Gender diversity is a complex problem with many contributing factors and therefore, tackling the problem requires collaboration across governments, corporations and individual men and women. There is not a one size fits all solution to solving the problem and governments, corporations and individual men and women can all play a significant role in empowering a more gender diverse and inclusive workplace. Here are some actionable bottom up strategies you can implement in your organization to move the needle on the gender diversity;
● Educate top leadership on the topic of gender diversity, positioning the issue as a business performance problem and secure buy-in and drive a cultural shift in gender diversity.
● Analyze the current state of gender diversity across the company collecting data to understand real and perceived barriers to women advancing in the corporate leadership pipeline.
● Increase the visibility of female leaders inside and outside the company to inspire the next generation.
● Establish career flexibility policies and programs that accommodate the needs of women and working parents (i.e. work hours, maternity/paternity leave support, rewarding outcomes achieved instead of hours, etc.)
● Set diversity and inclusion targets, track them consistently and share results (i.e. equity in pay, board seats, representation across management levels and business units, recruitment and retention, advancement/promotion, employee perceptions and feedback)
● Conduct diversity training and educate all levels of the company on the advantages of gender diversity (societal, business and individual.)
● Establish career development programs that support gender diversity advancement across the corporate leadership pipeline (i.e. ensure gender-neutral career management systems, personalized career paths, establish formal professional development and leadership programs, mentorship opportunities, set up women networking opportunities to increase exposure to role models, etc.)
● Empower high-potential and ambitious women to optimize and accelerate their career progression by supporting them to understand who they are, what they want and how they will get what they want.
How Splash Strategy Can Help
At Splash Strategy, we help high-potential professionals strategically advance and accelerate their careers through practical leadership training and coaching.
Visit splashstrategy.com to learn more about our programs and resources!