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How to empower women in the workplace

13 min read
While we’ve come a long way with diversity, equity and inclusion, we still have far to go until women are as equally recognized as men for their professional contributions. How can we empower women to achieve gender equality in the workplace?


Women in the workplace – a short history

Between 1930 and 1970, women’s participation in the US job market increased, particularly after the Second World War, with married women primarily driving that increase. There were several reasons for this:

  • Mass high school education meant that more educated women graduated
  • New technologies required more clerical workers to administer them, and women took on these jobs
  • Clerical jobs were cleaner and safer than manual jobs, and therefore more attractive for married women (and their husbands to agree to)

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Initially, women’s working lives were short as they were considered ‘secondary earners’ compared to their husbands, and they were expected to give up work when they had a family. By the 1970s, though, women themselves were expected to spend more time working, and began to get educated and train for careers, rather than just jobs.

Societal changes such as access to contraception, which gave women more control when to have children, and the right to apply for their own credit without a male co-signee, gave women more choices about their working lives. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (‘Title VII’) made it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation, and the 1978 Pregnancy  Discrimination Act outlawed discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions.

By the early 1990s, 74% of prime working-age women (25-54) were in the workforce, compared with 93% of prime working-age men, and more women were training and joining more traditionally male-dominated industries. However, women’s participation seems to have plateaued since then, and is currently at 76%, compared with 89% of men.

And while some women choose not to work, this historic gap in gender equality is wide enough to be a red flag that there are issues holding women back from participating in the workforce as fully as men do: the difficulties of combining career and family, a lack of equal opportunities, discrimination, and a dearth of female mentors.

And many women in the workplace are still being paid less than men – 17% less on average each week, and at least 10% less for women in the same or similar jobs as men, with the same experience and backgrounds.

Despite entering professional schools in equal numbers to men, women are statistically less likely to reach the top of their professions than their male counterparts. We’re going to look at why.

Discrimination against women in the workplace

While Title VII prohibited employment discrimination based on gender, race, color, religion, or national origin, but laws don’t always protect people from more insidious discrimination such as microaggressions, unconscious bias or othering. These continue to affect women, women of color, and transgender women.

One recent study of female medics revealed that they experienced more inappropriate touching, sexual remarks, gestures, and suggestive looks than their male colleagues. Nearly all said that some patients assumed they were not doctors, and they felt that patients respected them less than male medics.

Although federal law prohibits women in the workplace from being denied promotion because of gender, another study finds that women who showed early academic promise go on to have fewer leadership prospects at work, particularly when they become mothers. Men with lower academic grades (GPA) than women go on to achieve higher leadership roles, supervising more people, and this leadership gap is particularly acute when they become parents:

Graph of women in the workplace

Sexual harassment

It’s a sad truth that most women in the workplace who are sexually harassed stay silent about it, although the #MeToo and Time’sUp movements have empowered women to speak up. Here are some stats:

  • 38% of women in the workplace have experienced sexual harassment
  • Women have a 54% chance of becoming a victim of harassment
  • 63% of women did not file a complaint, and 79% of men kept issues to themselves
  • 37% of harassed women claimed harassment negatively affected their career advancement
  • Nearly 3 in 4 sexual harassment claims in the workplace go unreported
  • 55% of victims experience retaliation after speaking up or making a claim
  • According to victims who have reported harassment, 95% of the men go unpunished
  • 32% of employees weren’t aware that jokes could be considered sexual harassment
  • Workplace sexual harassment costs an average of $2.6 billion in lost productivity or $1,053 per victim
  • 7 in 10 people believe their companies do not take sexual harassment seriously

Source: https://inspiredelearning.com/blog/sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace-statistics/

Microaggressions

Undermining women in the workplace does not always have to be of a sexual nature. Microaggressions, such as having your judgment questioned, being interrupted or talked over, comments on your emotional state or hearing insults about ‘your culture’ or ‘people like you’ can also contribute to a hostile environment. Black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are more likely than women overall to experience microaggressions in their professional life:

Women in the workplace stats

The business costs of gender discrimination in the workplace

As a business leader, of course, you must adhere to your legal responsibilities to eliminate gender discrimination. But in today’s climate, creating a working environment where all employees feel safe, secure, and that they belong, goes beyond legal box-ticking. Any form of discrimination creates a toxic work culture that affects everyone’s performance, and the business’s reputation. Employees will leave for more enlightened employers, pushing up your attrition rate, and making it difficult to attract and retain talented workers. And all these factors hit the bottom line of the business hard.

And when you ask women in the workplace what they believe is the single biggest disadvantage they face, they give a variety of answers:

Women in the workplace quotes

The benefits of more women in the workplace

It’s official – when there is a higher percentage of women leaders in the workplace, there is:

  • More job satisfaction
  • Less burnout
  • More dedication to the business
  • More meaning to the work
  • Higher employee engagement
  • More retention

And organizations whose workforce has a high percentage of women boast a positive work culture, work that is enjoyable, flexible work that fits with women’s work-life balance, and opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Women Leaders Graphic

The benefits of a diverse workforce

It’s well known that “the best workforce is a diverse workforce” (Ted Colbert, Executive Vice President of Boeing). Diverse teams produce 19% more innovation revenue, according to one study:

Graphics

By strengthening their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and belonging, companies also invest in their long-term success.

How to empower women in the workplace

While women are rising to the C-suite of many companies, they are still underrepresented at all levels. And women in the workplace can only get so far by self-promotion. What modern businesses need to do is take responsibility for addressing bias, discrimination, and harassment, and empowering their female employees.

Eliminate bias

Unconscious bias is present in every business, because we all have subconscious preferences based on opinions or experiences from our pasts: whether it’s outdated views on what constitutes ‘women’s work’ as opposed to ‘men’s work’, or feeling that an interviewee looks a little too much like your old school bully, and this may influence your opinion of them. Here are some biases to be aware of and how to avoid them:

Bias Manifestation Solution
Gender Bias Treating one gender (generally women) more favorably than another Consider a gender swap for each role. Would it make any difference?
Age bias Assuming older employees are less capable or competent than younger ones Create mixed-age teams where everyone benefits from the experiences and abilities of each other
Conformity bias Like peer pressure, the group opinion can influence individuals to conform, rather than take a stand against it Use anonymous surveys to gather opinions so everybody feels safe expressing what they really feel
Affinity bias Assuming that people are drawn to others ‘like them’, maybe in gender, race, age, color, religion Create a diverse workforce, and one that promotes diversity, through your hiring process
Name bias Someone’s name may suggest their gender, race or religion and trigger a bias an employer may have about that person’s background Remove applicants’ names during the recruitment process, focusing instead on qualifications and experience
Height/weight/beauty bias Judging people based on their physical attributes Look ONLY at a person’s qualifications and experience

Hear women’s voices

For too long, women in the workplace have been sidelined, interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. It’s essential to give women a voice by:

  • Hearing what they have to say, equally, in meetings, and championing women’s great ideas and suggestions
  • Choosing women speakers to stand up and present, both in house and externally, to build confidence and inspire other women
  • Inviting inspirational women in to give talks for all employees, not just your female workforce, so that all genders can appreciate how amazing these women leaders are
  • Only holding panel events when there can be an equal number of women and men present to reflect the range of ideas and thoughts from the perspective of both genders equally

Implement flexible working

When ‘balancing family and work’ is given as one of the major challenges facing women in the workplace today, it makes sense that flexible working should be available to all. And post-pandemic, it is likely that hybrid working will become the new normal. Women particularly benefit from being able to take time out from their working day to care for children or elderly relatives and work when it suits them. And as women generally are skilled at multitasking, they’ll get that work done, and done well. Flexible working allows women to balance their home and work responsibilities while progressing their careers and continuing to develop.

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Equal pay for equal work

As we’ve seen above, the gender pay gap is still alive and kicking in workplaces across the land. And the impact of it is far more than just financial. When women in the workplace feel cheated out of fair pay, they feel less valued, and people who feel less valued are disengaged at work. Employee engagement is essential for the success of a business, and alienating a substantial proportion of your workforce makes no business sense. Look in your data for inequalities and make sure all your employees, regardless of gender, are paid equally for equal work.

Make leadership diverse

In 2021, the number of women running Fortune 500 businesses reached an all-time record: 41. And of these 41, two are Black women and four are women of color. This accounts for 8.1% of the Fortune 500, meaning that nearly 92% of the top companies are still run by men.

Women in the workplace

There is clearly still much work to be done. Women are still expected to navigate the broken rung (that first, crucial step up to manager level) of the corporate career ladder,  and you can focus on getting women and minorities above it by:

  • Recognizing high achieving women as readily as you recognize high achieving men
  • Factoring women into conversations and initiatives about career advancement opportunities
  • Making it clear what women need to do to be promoted
  • Encouraging women to pursue advancement opportunities and giving them the tools to do so
  • Recruiting for a diverse workplace by opening up talent pipelines so every employee at every level can advance

Celebrate individuals

The healthiest workplaces are those where employees feel they belong and can be their authentic selves at work. Celebrate the different qualities and skills that women in the workplace bring to their roles, recognizing that everyone has their own story and they are shaped by that. Also recognize and celebrate women’s accomplishments across the organization, not just within the department, to inspire other female employees to follow in their footsteps.

Empower women in the workplace with Qualtrics

The two most important things to do to empower women in your workplace are: listen to them, then act on what they say.

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