Even as the world celebrated International Women’s Day last week with enthusiasm through a deluge of social media posts, events, etc., many women are asking whether the once-a-year celebration is anything more than lip service.
While gender equality has made considerable headway in many countries, concerns remain, even in developed nations, when it comes to key issues such as equal pay for equal work and female representation in the highest echelons of the corporate world.
As recruiters, we have noticed more companies prioritising diversity in their ranks, but when it comes to gender diversity, some fundamental views and practices have to be re-examined in order for women to truly have access to equal opportunities.
COMPANIES NEED TO DO THEIR PART TO LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
A growing body of research shows that women are still significantly more likely to take on at-home caregiving and household responsibilities. While WFH arrangements have resulted in both men and women spending more time at home, ultimately, many families report that these responsibilities still tend to fall on women.
More companies have introduced progressive leave policies such as flexible work arrangements to support women in the workforce, but traditional views of gender roles and expectations render such policies detrimental to women’s progress at the workplace. In other words, these policies, when offered more readily to women, work against women.
Those who take time off or avail themselves of flexible work arrangements are often penalised for it. It’s no secret that they have a harder time getting promotions and pay bumps.
In order for there to be a level playing at the workplace, there needs to be a level playing field at home.
Companies often say that this is something they have little control over, forgetting that they are capable of sending out powerful signals with the right HR policies and practices.
One of the reasons that men cite for not playing a larger role at home is that when they ask for time off to attend to caregiving and household responsibilities, they tend to be judged harshly by their managers.
Even in companies with clear policies governing flexible work arrangements and longer paternity leave for male employees, managers might discourage men from taking time off. Some appear obviously reluctant to approve leave. Others pointedly ask why their spouses can’t handle things instead. This makes men think twice about exercising their rights, entrenching inequalities both at home and at work.
Companies need to do their part to level the playing field at home by addressing gender biases among managers and willingly according such flexibilities to men.
CONFRONT YOUR BELIEFS AND TAKE A SYSTEMIC APPROACH
A 2020 Harvard Business Review article drives this point home effectively.
In What’s Really Holding Women Back? authors, Robin Ely and Irene Padavic debunk the common belief that the reason women do not advance in leadership roles is their devotion to their families which makes it impossible for them to devote the hours required by high-level jobs.
The authors describe their work with a global consulting firm. In the course of their extensive interviews, they found that women were, in fact, not more devoted to their families than men.
Instead they discovered that men and women experienced similar work-family conflicts.
The difference was that women were encouraged to avail themselves of accommodations that derailed their careers, such as going part-time or taking an internal facing role instead of client work, while men were not. Underlying it all was a “culture of overwork that hurt both men and women and locked gender inequality in place.”
The authors recommend that “For the firm to address its gender problem, it would have to address its long-hours problem. And the way to start would be to stop overselling and overdelivering. The leaders reacted negatively to this feedback. They continued to maintain that women were failing to advance because they had difficulty balancing work and family, and they insisted that any solution had to target women specifically. Unable to convince them otherwise, we were at a loss for how to help, and the engagement effectively ended.”
If companies are truly serious about diversity, equity and inclusion, they need to be willing to confront their deeply held beliefs about gender roles and take a systemic approach.
We encourage digging deeper and questioning assumptions in order to truly level the playing field for a gender-neutral workplace.
Start at the top by making a business case for gender neutrality, enshrine it in HR policies and ensure that every employee internalises it to enable both men and women to pursue their aspirations without encumbrances.