How to support women in the workplace

Written by Mavis Kung, PhD, Senior Director of R&D

Women in the workplace bring undeniable prospects to improve quality of work and overall performance for organisations. Yet, when it comes to men vs. women in the workplace, there are persistent disparities in representation of women in terms of access to opportunities that kick-start careers to longevity of career success. Working women – married or not, seasoned or not, regardless of industry or location – are still held back by obstacles like pay inequality and lack of representation in management roles. So, what can we do to better support women in the workplace? Keep reading to discover answers and ways to help women everywhere unleash their full potential in the modern workforce.

Men vs. women in the workplace

In one scene in the book turned miniseries Lessons in Chemistry, Elizabeth Zott, the main character, explains to her lab partner why she hasn’t progressed the research as quickly as she had hoped. “I would be much further along in my research if I wasn’t making excellent coffee for mediocre scientists,” Elizabeth said. Calvin, a famous and esteemed scientist, felt dumbfounded and exclaimed, “I don’t understand. Why would anyone discriminate based on something as intellectually non-determinative as gender?”

Society in many respects has come a long way since charging women with making coffee simply because of their gender. McKinsey recently reported that more women have been selected for C-Suite roles than ever. Even still there is work to do when it comes to other managerial roles, particularly for women of colour. Women entrepreneurs also experienced a more difficult time securing financing from banks. As evidenced in the meta-analysis of 31 studies across 20 years, women encountered a higher rejection rate for loan applications and higher interest rates despite strong support for women’s empowerment.

How to address inequalities for women in the workplace

As I dove into the research, I felt both disturbed and hopeful. There are so many studies out there, so much advocacy and awareness, and so much effort at the individual and system level regarding inclusive behaviours and how to support women in the workplace. Yet, the disparities remain.

I believe that to address this gap we see between men vs women in the workplace and achieve equal employment, we need to lean on scientific methods with a human-centred approach that focuses on four specific areas.

  1. Focus on job relevant skills
    For the past several decades, I/O Psychologists and the assessment industry have been preaching the importance of only evaluating job candidates on the skills necessary to succeed a role. It is unwise to make job-related decisions without understanding what job-related competencies or skills contribute to the success of carrying out the tasks and activities of a role. In the United States, the Civil Act of 1964 and many subsequent landmark case laws provide a strong foundation to ensure equal opportunity in employment. Similar regulatory frameworks have been adopted around the globe.

    A well-designed assessment solution process can ensure women have a fair chance. You start by understanding what the job entails and assessing those core competencies with a valid measure. We have found this approach can improve the quality of hire and achieve diversity goals. For example, Currys implemented a valid assessment process tailored to the organisation, and female hires increased from 26% to 64%. A research-backed leadership framework coupled with rigorously developed assessments, such as Talogy’s InView Leadership solutions, can help identify and break gender stereotypes in the workplace to move more talented women into leadership roles.

  2. Acknowledge bias against women in the workplace
    While many advocate for training that focuses on recognising implicit bias acquired through socialisation since birth, research indicates that this approach often backfires. When not done right, it can lead to a sense of guilt, shame, and embarrassment – none of which fuels the energy to take positive action.

    A group of researchers investigated whether there is another way to counteract the bias-prone tendency. In a series of five studies, Liu, Rattan, and Savani (2023) demonstrated that a universal mindset – beliefs that nearly everyone has high leadership potential – is associated with less bias against women in the workplace while making selection decisions. Participants in the studies who read news articles titled “Only some people have high leadership potential” exhibited more bias-prone ratings than participants who read news articles titled “Nearly everyone has high leadership potential.”

    Another study by Eagly and Karau detailed incongruity between gender role expectation and the ideal leader, creating significant challenges for women in the workplace. Women are often less likely to be viewed as capable and likeable. While it is extremely difficult to remove those stereotypes, it is possible to deactivate the unhelpful thinking pattern with a helpful mindset. That is, promoting a universal mindset could short circuit the damaging effects of stereotyping and bias.

    These findings are extremely encouraging and useful. We have known that there are strong gender role expectations and gender stereotypes deeply engrained and embedded into many facets of the workplace. While it is difficult to remove those stereotypes, it is possible to promote a universal mindset which reverses or at least minimises stereotypes and bias that show up in attracting, selecting, and retaining women.

  3. Optimise the work environment to support women in the workplace
    Today, no one will debate the benefits of family-friendly policies at work – such as flexible schedules to support employees as their life demands change throughout their careers. However, it often comes with a stigma for women in the workplace who opt in to take advantage of these policies.

    Besides policy, we also need to encourage leaders to model and support work-life balance. A Deloitte Global 2023 survey suggested a growing demand for more flexibility in terms of when and how much employees work. Flexible arrangements are highly valued by today’s workforce. They not only benefit women, but are also attractive to Gen Z and millennials in the workplace. And let’s face it – it should never be just about the balance of work versus life. Work is part of life. We would be fooling ourselves to think that we are equipped to switch between these two modes effortlessly.

    The concept of work-life integration reframes this dilemma – not separating work and life as they are independent, but how the two are intertwined. The life demands of women in the workplace don’t disappear while at work. They are still humming in the background. A fulfilled personal life also strengthens the foundation to allow women to perform at work. It isn’t until we take a holistic and people-centred approach to understand the intricacy of work and life demands that we can really help women in the workplace achieve a fulfilling career.

  4. Listen to your people
    One of the many ways to understand how to support women in the workplace is to talk to women around you. There are considerable differences that are unique to every woman depending on factors such as career aspirations, their role as caregiver, and industry or organisational context. Subsequently, ways to address those unique needs could look very different. A one size fits all approach is a statistical myth.

    To better support women in the workplace, it’s important to engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations. These discussions need to go a step further and look not only at women as a whole, but minority women specifically. A recent McKinsey report on women in the workplace took an intersectional look at the specific barriers faced by Asian, Black, Latina, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities. The report highlights the different experiences among these women and often overlooked nuances. As an Asian American woman who immigrated to the US from Taiwan, I was fortunate to have supportive managers who saw me as someone with unique strengths and developmental areas. The ongoing coaching conversations with my managers and peers helped me develop personalised strategies and benefit me tremendously to this day.

    Find the women in your life and talk to them. Ask them about their perspective, what they wish they had, and how you can better support them at work (or at home). Give them space to share their stories. Our life experiences give us a unique vantage point that can spark innovative ideas to support each of us better. And don’t assume what works for one woman would work the same way for another. When learning how to support women in the workplace better, we need to let them know how valuable their contributions are and identify ways to meet their individual needs.

Empower equality by supporting women in the workplace

There are multiple paths to take when it comes to supporting women in the workplace, and the only wrong path is to do nothing and leave it up to the randomness and serendipity of the universe. Individuals can better support women by engaging in meaningful conversations, using proven methods, and taking a people-centred approach that works for both women and men. Organisations can support women better by optimising the work environment and policies to support unique challenges. They can achieve this by implementing family-friendly practices and utilising objective and valid assessment solutions to make better business decisions about their people. It’s worth noting that supporting women in the workplace does not have to come at the expense of another group. It will catapult the quality of work and life forward for all employees.

Building better organisations through inclusive leadership

The topic of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is an area of emphasis for many organisations right now. Organisations that have been successful at creating sustainable change in DEI have had strong commitment, and action, among their leadership.

In this whitepaper, you will learn about the role that leaders play in creating an inclusive culture, one that strives to create allies, or champions for diversity, as well as the leadership competencies and characteristics that contribute to inclusive behaviour and climate.

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