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Women in the workplace: three questions to ask your leaders

October 9, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion

As a mother of a professional working daughter, the under-representation of women at every level of the workforce concerns me. Women are 33% more likely to gain a college degree than men, and make up 47.5% of the country’s labor force, yet the gender gap remains.

In 1972 Katherine Graham of the Washington Post Company became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 firm. Today 4.8% of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs, while the percentage of women executive officers has remained flat at around 14% since 2010.

New research entitled “Women in the Workplace,” conducted by and McKinsey, surveyed 30,000 men and women at 118 North American companies, and paints a disturbing picture of how much work needs to be done to reach gender equality in the C-Suite. In fact, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Co-Founder of says it will take more than 100 years to reach the progress my daughter and I are looking for in the workforce.

Challenges In Reaching Gender Equality In C-Suite

The barriers to progress are well documented in the Women in the Workplace report. While 74% of companies reported that their CEOs are committed to gender diversity, less than half of employees believed that to be true. Meanwhile, companies which have flexible programs for men and women find they are underused. More than 90% of men and women feel that taking the family leave they are entitled to will harm their careers.

This is particularly troubling as in just under 10 years Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce and Millennial women are seeking out employers with a strong record on equality and diversity. According to recent PwC survey of 40,000 Millennial respondents across 18 countries, entitled Next Generation Diversity: Developing Tomorrow’s Female Leaders, 82% of female Millennials identified an employers’ policy on diversity, inclusion, and gender equality as an important factor when deciding whether or not to work for an organization. Employers must do more than “talk the talk,” on gender equality. Instead, they must put into place a mix of inclusive talent and advancement strategies, which demonstrate results. The business case is simple: every company is waging a war for the best talent to meet the ever-accelerating rate of change. Why would any CEO want to cut out 50% of their options?

Three Key Questions to Ask Your Leaders

Let’s assume you are in a meeting and want to dig deeper on how your organization is progressing on gender equality. Here are three questions to ask your senior executives:

1) Where and in What Roles Are Women in Our Talent Pipeline?

The easy first question is: how many women hold senior executive positions in the organization?

The tougher question is: how and where are women moving through the talent pipeline, from entry level to high potential, and what targets if any are being set by the organization?

Marc Benioff, Co-Founder of Salesforce, recently created the Women’s Surge and set a target: achieve 100% equality for men and women in pay and promotion and make sure that at least one third of all participants at any Salesforce meeting are women. As a first step, Benioff asked his senior team to identify their top female executives who would then receive additional leadership training.

Once the pipeline is visible then the next question needs to be asked: what percentage of women is occupying line and staff roles?

In the USA, about two thirds of women in Fortune 500 companies start in line positions (positions with profit and loss responsibility) but with time these numbers are reversed with two-thirds of C-Suite women in staff positions. Women in the Workplace research notes that more than half of women at the VP level hold staff roles.Men, on the other hand, are more likely to hold line roles at every level of the organization. This difference poses a potential problem because line roles frequently feed into senior leadership.

2) How Is Our Organization Dealing With Unconscious Bias?

One of the biggest barriers to making progress in gender equality rests in the minds of men and women, and it is known as unconscious bias. Catalyst, a non-profit organization promoting inclusive workplaces for women, defines unconscious bias as an implicit association or attitude about race or gender that operates out of our control, informs our perception about a person or group of people, and can influence our decision making and behavior toward a person or group of people. Companies deal with unconscious bias in various ways from formal training on the topic to recognizing it exists and setting goals to change it. The latter is much more effective as we how difficult it is to move from awareness to changing behavior

One company that stands out for their commitment to closing the gender gap is Kimberly Clark, who since 2009 has seen a 90% increase in the number of women holding director-level and above leadership positions, and received an award from Catalyst in 2014 for making developing diverse talent one of the metrics by which it judges its leaders across the globe. It even ties bonus money to it. “To be an exceptional leader at Kimberly-Clark Corp, you have to develop talent that looks, thinks and behaves like the people who use our products,” says Sue Dodsworth, Chief Diversity Officer for Kimberly-Clark Corp.

Recently the company put into place a Rule of Two: for appointments at the VP level and above, leaders must bring three candidates for consideration and no more than two of them should have a similar demographics profile.

3) Now What: What Policies Can We Put into Place to Move Our Organization Toward Gender Equality?

While acknowledging unconscious bias is a first step toward understanding how stubborn the barriers are to making change, companies also need to put into place a range of new policies to effect change. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her recent NYT article entitled A Toxic Work World, proposes a number of policy changes companies need to consider to compete in the global war for talent, and they include:

  • High quality and affordable childcare and elder care;
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave;
  • A right to request part-time work;
  • Comprehensive job protection for pregnant workers;
  • Higher wages and training for paid care givers;
  • Reforms at elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of our digital workplaces.

To this impressive list, I will add one more: not just paid paternity leave, but mandatory paid paternity leave. Sounds far fetched? Some countries are already doing this: Sweden offers a generous family leave policy of 16 months of paid time off to care for newborns, and this is split between both parents. A new law will go into effect in January 2016 requiring fathers to take a mandatory three months of paid paternity leave, encouraging fathers to take part in bonding with their child. This also is a major step in reducing the perception that childcare is a women’s issue.

Are you a working Mom or Dad? What policies would you like to see your company offer you? How can women be more equally represented in the C-Suite and in executive leadership positions in your company?

By Jeanne Meister

Source: Forbes

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