Sector News

Working women and the war for talent

September 11, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

It’s evident that there’s a long way to go, especially as many places around the world see gender equality reversing. In 2021, women still made up less than 40% of the global workforce, and participation is declining in many faster-growing, lower-income countries, like India and Nigeria (see Figure 1). Covid-19 has also disproportionately affected women’s workforce participation, particularly for non-college-educated women, increasing the gap between men and women.

As companies grapple with current talent shortages, women can be a key part of the solution. Despite different starting points and cultural contexts, every country has an opportunity to bring more women into the workforce, in order to meet talent needs and advance women’s empowerment. Understanding the differences—and similarities—between women and men at work is critical for addressing gender parity and winning the war for talent.

In our research on worker attitudes and motivations, we actually found that what motivates women and men at work is the same. We identified six worker archetypes based on 10 attitudes, including work-centricity, financial orientation, and camaraderie (see “Six Worker Archetypes for the World Ahead”). The mix of those archetypes is strikingly similar in men and women, even following the same trajectory with age. And in our research on inclusion, we found that men and women feel equally included—and excluded—at work. They speak about inclusion in the same manner. Time after time, we find little intrinsic difference between men and women.

Six Worker Archetypes for the World Ahead
And yet, women and men continue to have different outcomes and experiences in the workplace. We see three meaningful imbalances between men and women at work: in occupation selection, in prioritization of flexibility, and in workplace treatment.

Gender biases continue to govern occupation choice. While occupations have become more balanced in the last 30 years, women remain underrepresented in many higher-paying management and technical occupations (see Figure 2). Women are especially underrepresented in the jobs that are seeing heavy demand today: They hold just 25% of US computing jobs and 13% of engineering jobs.

Why? From an early age, children learn to follow gender expectations in play and career ambitions, based on the idea that girls and boys have different capabilities. In fact, studies have shown that by the age of seven, girls choose more “caring” careers, like teaching and healthcare, and boys choose more stereotypically masculine careers, like engineering. Even though women have closed the college education gap in most countries, graduates of technical fields are mostly men. In the US, the share of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science declined from 33% in 1980 to 21% in 2018. The situation is similar globally. Many women cite a prevailing culture of machismo—both in and beyond school—as a deterrent.

At work, women prioritize flexibility more than men (see Figure 3). The deeply rooted expectation that men work and women take care of home duties continues to restrict women (and men). One symptom of this expectation is the disproportionate share of unpaid work by women—160% more in the US and nearly 500% more in Japan. Our research shows that men and women prioritize flexibility equally early in their careers. However, as US workers age, flexibility grows in importance for women and declines for men.

Moving to a flexible role can be a catch-22. Flexible work arrangements, like part-time work, can keep women in the workforce, but at a steep wage and career advancement cost. In fact, part-time work is one of the main contributors to the pay gap. In the US, twice as many women work part time than men (of those, nearly 9 times more women voluntarily work part time due to family needs). The share of women in part-time work is even higher in many European countries. Three-quarters of Dutch women work part time, mostly to balance childcare and work.

What’s more, many women who continue to work full time may steer away from “high-intensity” jobs, as they perceive them to be more unpredictable. Women are also more likely to take extended leaves. More than 30% of women who reduced hours or took an extended leave say it hurt their career, compared with fewer than 20% of men. The difference in rates of flexible work between men and women reflects society’s acceptance of women who move into part-time work or extended leaves, but not men, which can leave both men and women feeling unfulfilled.

Bias continues to perpetuate differential treatment for women. Many workplace behaviors and structures are rooted in conscious and unconscious bias, with systems that were designed with the majority (men) in mind. This leads to differential treatment for women. While women often receive mentorship, or are shown what to do, many lack sponsorship—they are not championed for their contributions, as male leaders at the top are more likely to sponsor men. Systems for promotion can also result in biased outcomes when leaders assess subjective promotion criteria, such as “leadership potential,” in a way that favors men. For example, workplaces often celebrate assertiveness in men but not women (even citing it in favor of promotion), leading to a cultural double standard.

Women are also asked to do (and accept) more administrative work and emotional labor that generally isn’t compensated. This differential treatment can make women’s climb up the ladder more difficult. As a result, the wedge between men’s and women’s ambitions grows by mid-career.

But the traditional climb up the ladder may be overvalued today. Firms of the future can expect fewer people to follow a linear managerial path, and more to take a “passport” approach to their careers—exploring different roles, flexible work, and on- and off-ramps as part of their career journey. This cultural change, paired with actions to increase the number of women in leadership roles, can reset the value systems to be more equitable at all levels of the organization. READ MORE

By Bianca Bax, Andrew Schwedel, Fai Assakul, and Nicole Bitler


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