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10 Big Issues Women Face at Work and What Leaders Can Do to Help

Women's March

January 19, 2017Women continue to encounter challenges when it comes to advancing in the workplace—and in many facets of society. This is why Catalyst, on the heels (no pun intended!) of the Women’s March on Washington, is highlighting 10 important issues that are fundamental to women who are trying to progress in business across the country. We’ve also shared a few action steps required by leaders who are willing to be innovative and make room at the table for women to succeed at work.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Flexible Work Arrangements—Working flexibly is an issue for many women.
    Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) define how, where, and when employees’ work, allowing them to best manage their career and personal priorities. Once seen as an employee benefit or an accommodation for caregivers (primarily women), flexible work arrangements are now an effective tool for organizations to attract top talent as well as a cost-savings measure to reduce turnover, productivity, and absenteeism.

    What can leaders do?
    •    Switch their focus to productivity and results, and not time spent at the desk. 
    •    Seek out managers who currently work flexibly and find out what works and what doesn’t. 
    •    Encourage your own team to be a role model and consider utilizing FWAs. 
     

  2. Equal Pay—It’s 2017, and women still make less than men.
    Women around the world continue to face a wage gap. In fact, women on average will need to work more than 70 additional days each year just to catch up to the earnings of men. Our research shows that even after taking into account prior experience, time since degree, job level, industry, and global region, women MBA graduates were paid $4,600 less than men in their first job after graduation. 

    What can leaders do?
    •    Ensure that there are no gaps in your workplace by doing a wage audit.
    •    Implement a “no negotiations” policy.
    •    Support pay transparency.
    •    Evaluate recruitment, promotion, and talent development systems for gender bias.
     

  3. Race and Gender Bias—Women of color continue to deal with some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles.
    Everyone has unconscious biases—even the best-intentioned people—which play out in their everyday lives and interactions such as those in the workplace. Working women of color face a unique set of challenges that intersect across race/ethnicity, gender, and culture. Because of this, many women of color who oftentimes have to deal with daunting roadblocks such as other people’s beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. 

    What can leaders do?
    •    Don’t shy away from talking about uncomfortable or difficult topics. Each of us—regardless of our race or gender—has a role to play.
    •    Be open to feedback and learning
    •    If you see harmful behavior in your workplace, say something. Otherwise, your silence makes you complicit in it.
    •    Build trust and confront inequities head on through organization-wide strategies.
     

  4. Access to Hot Jobs—Why don’t women have the same access to career-making roles as men? 
    Not all leadership opportunities are created equally, and not all jobs provide the same degree of career advancement. Today, women still get offered fewer of the high visibility, mission-critical roles, and international experiences (what we call “hot jobs”) that are important to reaching the highest levels of leadership. 

    What can leaders do?
    •    Make a deliberate investment to help women colleagues.
    •    Model inclusive leadership behaviors.
    •    Empower employees to negotiate their roles.
     

  5. Role Models—There are few powerful examples of women role models in workplaces.
    You can’t be what you can’t see. Our research shows that almost two-thirds of women reported a lack of senior or visibly successful female role models as a major obstacle to their career advancement. While women are almost half of the US labor force, they make up less than 5% of CEOs and less than 10% of top earners in the S&P 500; and for women of color are nearly invisible on both S&P 500 boards and Fortune 500 boards

    What can leaders do?
    •    Be intentional about appointing highly qualified women to your executive team, corporate board, C-suite, and/or CEO position.
     

  6. Sponsorship—Not enough leaders are sponsoring highly qualified women by speaking up on their behalf.
    In any work culture, relationships are necessary for employees to attain high-visibility assignments, promotions, and connections. For women, sponsors—advocates in positions of authority who use their influence intentionally to help others advance—are essential to ensuring career advancement and professional development. We know that women have a lot of mentors; but they also need sponsors who will give them visibility, talk about their accomplishments behind closed doors, and promote them for stretch opportunities.

    What can leaders do?
    •    Recognize sponsorship is something that anyone can do, including and especially,  men who can take several powerful actions.
    •    Carefully and humbly listen to women colleagues, which can help them feel more included.
    •    Take a look at your “go-to” people at work; is it a diverse group? Are you looking broadly and deeply for talent? Are women included in the informal activities and socializing that is also important for advancement?
    •    Offer “air cover” to defend and support women colleagues’ innovative ideas.
    •    Learn more about sponsorship at Catalyst Women On Board™.
     

  7. Sexual Harassment—Women at all levels of employment and all levels of workplace are affected.
    Sexual harassment remains a widespread problem, and at least one-quarter of women having reported some sort of harassment on the job. This inappropriate behavior costs employers in many ways: increased absenteeism, persistent job turnover, and low productivity and engagement. Individually, women become depressed, experience anxiety, or quit all together in the hope of avoiding continued harassment. 

    What can leaders do?
    •    Develop and implement prevention strategies such as a highly visible community education campaign.
    •    Ensure access to workplace reporting mechanisms.1
    •    Train managers to report any complaints or observations of harassment.
    •    Thoroughly investigate all complaints of harassment and take corrective action.
     

  8. Non-Inclusive Workplaces—Women often feel dismissed or ignored.
    When women (or any employee) feel like outsiders in the workplace because of their unique qualities or differences (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, sexual orientation), they feel excluded. Exclusion comes at a great cost to organizations in the form of lowered job satisfaction, reduced work effort, diminished employee voice, and greater intention to leave. Building an inclusive work place means creating a culture that fully engages and supports all employees.

    What can leaders do?
    •    Create conversation ground rules and hold yourself and your team accountable for following them. 
    •    Develop a shared understanding and language about inclusion and exclusion. 
    •    Sign up for a free CatalystX/edX course, “Communication Skills for Bridging Divides,” to learn simple skills to talk across differences and build more tolerant and inclusive workplaces, communities, and schools.
     

  9. Double-Bind—Women’s ability to lead is often undermined by gender stereotypes.
    The stereotype that men “take charge” and women “take care” puts women leaders in various double-binds. For example, women are judged as being too hard, too soft, and never just right. Women leaders are also seen as competent or liked but not both. Also, men may be seen as having the “default” style when it comes to their ability to lead effectively, meaning women spend part of everyday repeatedly proving they too can lead. This effort leads to women working twice as hard as their male counterparts. 

    What can leaders do?
    •    Do not discredit the effectiveness of women leaders based on gender stereotypes.
    •    Challenge yourself whether you are judging people fairly—reverse the gender of the person in question and see if it makes a difference in your thinking.
    •    Expose employees to peers—including men—who are willing to advocate for women leaders.
    •    Provide diversity and inclusion training to help employees understand the effects of gender stereotyping. 
     

  10. LGBT Protection—Many LGBT women feel like “outsiders” in the workplace. 
    Misperceptions and exclusionary behavior can make LGBT women feel like the “other” at work, leading them to choose to stay in the closet by not disclosing their sexual orientation. This can push them to further separate themselves from developing relationships with colleagues and hold them back from bringing their whole selves to work and being their most innovative and engaged. Ultimately, this causes them to be set apart from the power structures at the top.

    What can leaders do?
    •    Demonstrate inclusive leadership behaviors.
    •    Take steps to be a visible ally so LGBT women and others will know they can come to you and count on you. 
    •    Lead intentionally through empowerment, accountability, courage, and humility—or the EACH behaviors.
    •    Protect the psychological safety of LGBT women at work (and all employees), which will help them feel more included and feel more innovative.
    •    Benchmark and learn from other organizations that are committed to LGBT Inclusion through the HRC Corporate Equality Index.
    •    Learn more about LGBT rights to help build a more inclusive workplace culture and society.

These are a few of the challenges women face in the workplace. What else would you add to this list?

  • 1. The first two recommendations are adapted from: Australian Human Rights Commission, Working Without Fear (2012).