This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Water Quality Products magazine as "Women in the Workplace."
The war for talent has been waging for many years now. Employers across industries report that it is more challenging than ever to attract qualified candidates and increasingly difficult to retain top employees who have so many options now. Given the state of the employment marketplace, it does not make sense to bypass applicants simply due to their gender. Organizations who fail to hire or promote women are missing an incredible opportunity to fully tap into the experience, skills and unique capabilities that women bring to the workplace.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Today’s women are educated—in fact, more so than men, in terms of college and advanced degrees. They also are more likely than men to volunteer their time for causes they believe in and commit their time fundraising for charitable organizations. Women, on average, do 2.5 times the amount of work in the household, including child and eldercare as well as housework. This, unfortunately, hampers labor force participation for many women who may be limited in their occupational choices by these familial obligations.
Women also are decision makers. Think about your customers. Many of them are probably women. Do you rely upon them to make purchases? Negotiate prices? Represent their families and businesses? To be brand ambassadors or raving fans of your products or services? My guess is your answers are a resounding “yes” to all. And you are not alone. The underrepresentation of women in business is a concerning waste of talent. Looking in the rearview mirror to blame society, the industry, the old boys’ club or lack of female applicants is not going to improve the situation. The only way to make progress is to start by getting more women in the door. To do that, your organization might need to start with some self-reflection so that traditional recruiting and selection processes and practices can be modified to increase the probability of women applying for and being selected for positions.
You may be scratching your head, wondering what process or practice might be changed to encourage more females to apply for jobs at your company. One example might be your job postings. Are they written in a gender-neutral way? Are they posted in places that are equally accessible to men and women? Are you casting a wide net for applicants by utilizing social media to spread the word about your open positions? Another area to consider modifications might be your interview process. Who from your team is involved? Are the questions planned in advance and asked consistently of all applicants? Are you providing realistic job previews or just using the time with the candidate to “sell” your company? By taking a closer look at how selection decisions currently are made, you may find relatively simple ways to level the playing field so that more women will apply, be considered and hopefully, hired for jobs in your organization.
Even once women are in the door, it is not always smooth sailing and a clear path to the top. According to a 2018 report by McKinsey and Co., women represent 48% of entry-level professionals, 29% of vice presidents and just 23% of C-suite executives. While women are entering the workplace at the same pace as men, they are not being promoted into higher level positions at the same rate. Why is women’s progress so slow? Some reports show it is primarily because women are more likely to face everyday discrimination in the workplace. This may include demeaning comments, having to make extra efforts to prove their competence or being mistaken for someone more junior even if they have a position of responsibility and authority. Although some of these microaggressions might be subtle and go unreported, they still have an impact on women’s advancement.
Women also struggle in workplaces where they are the first or the only female to hold a particular job or be assigned a certain role. In these instances, women often are left to fend for themselves, are not invited to participate in important business conversations or networking events and end up feeling excluded and undervalued. In many cases, women feel like no one has their back or is willing to go to bat for them. According to a Harvard Business Review report, women are 54% less likely to have a sponsor at work. Without sponsors, women tend to be overlooked for promotional opportunities and will eventually seek other employment where they feel their contributions are valued.
In terms of other employment, women are choosing to start their own businesses at record rates. Women more regularly decide to forge their own path when they are not given the opportunities, respect or pay they deserve. Over the past 20 years, the employment growth rate at women-owned firms has flourished. Women now own an estimated 11.6 million businesses, employing nearly 9 million people nationally and generating more than $1.7 trillion in annual revenues. Women have proven to be highly entrepreneurial and adept at creating wealth for themselves and others. Charting their own course and destiny has proven to be a viable option for many women for whom traditional employment failed to deliver.
Fortunately, many savvy organizational leaders are determined to have women play more vital roles in their success and are committed to making meaningful efforts to hire and promote women, even in industries that have traditionally been male dominated. Whether your organization is just beginning to address gender inequalities or already has an inclusive culture, it is imperative to ensure a concerted effort. In short, this means that men and women alike need to open doors, offer opportunities and take chances on female candidates and employees. All employees, regardless of gender, need to be listened to, encouraged, supported and provided candid feedback. Although the #MeToo movement has serious implications for employers, it should not be a reason to keep women and men apart by excluding women from industry events or other places that could impact their ability to achieve business results. Companies that prioritize creating a culture of equality experience a plethora of benefits, including new ideas, more engaged employees and a stronger bottom-line.
If you are concerned about the short- and long-term implications of not attracting, hiring, promoting and engaging women at your organization, here are a few additional recommendations. Start by making this issue a priority and working to identify areas where bias may exist in your business practices. Take a closer look at your policies to determine if you are truly flexible or if there are ways to be more family-friendly (e.g., telecommuting, part-time schedules). Next, it is important to hold managers accountable for establishing and maintaining a level playing field for all employees. Finally, be sure to track progress, adjust as necessary and celebrate achievements along the way. Over time, your efforts to hire and retain the most qualified candidates, regardless of gender, will become ingrained in your culture. Ultimately, your organization will reap well-deserved rewards.