Five things employers can do today to better support women in the workplace

gender qualification gap

By Alix Lee

Women are entering and staying in the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, but many of us are still fighting an uphill battle when it comes to career opportunities.

We’re still earning less than our male peers — a disparity that starts at the graduate level — and men continue to dominate leadership positions across most industries. Women who have children also continue to face a motherhood penalty and, come retirement, end up with significantly less in superannuation savings than men.

Employers can do more. Below are five things that can provide a good start.

Make equal pay a priority

The total remuneration gender pay gap was found to be at 21.3% at the end of 2018, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

While this gap has thankfully declined each of the five years that WGEA has been collecting this data from employers, we need to see employers doing more to narrow it.

The first step is to undertake a pay gap analysis in order to identify the extent of the problem. While 41.6% of employers reporting to WGEA claim to have now done this analysis (another increase), there are still plenty that are yet to make a start.

From there, employers should consider opportunities to help close and avoid these gaps, including by potentially allocating a pool of funds to make the necessary adjustments, as Energy Australia has done, and addressing new ways to negotiate salaries and set wages.

Also, employers must consider the economic security of women over the long-term, and consider following the lead of organisations like HSBC and Viva Energy Australia in paying superannuation during parental leave.

Champion women’s career progression

Women continue to be less likely to progress into managerial positions compared to their male colleagues.

Currently, only 7% of ASX 200 chief executive officer positions are held by women and there are far fewer women than men in senior management positions at other Australian companies.

While gender quotas aim to correct our male-centric management culture, they are often dismissed as tokenistic. The reality though, is that the current standard of ‘meritorious’ promotion is a farce.

Many companies have seen success through setting targets for women in leadership positions, although such success will again depend on the buy-in for programs from those already in power. Linking targets to performance reviews and even bonuses would help.

Another meaningful way a company can support women’s career development is through a sponsorship program (a more holistic version of mentoring).

Put simply, sponsorship programs can help women overcome career barriers by pairing them with a senior manager who is well-placed to vouch for them to receive suitable promotions and opportunities.

An analysis of 93 (women and men) participants in one program, found that most experienced greater visibility and development opportunities through their involvement with a sponsor.

Address unconscious bias

One of the most difficult challenges for companies is to address workplace culture that has been shaped by unconscious bias, in which policies and practices are skewed in favour of hiring and promoting men.

Unconscious bias is one of the biggest factors limiting a woman’s career potential, and sadly, it’s endemic in most industries.

In fact, 76% of respondents to a global online research study by Harvard University agreed ‘men were better suited for careers and women better suited as homemakers’.

A common psychological experiment undertaken at leadership workshops asks participants to draw an ‘effective leader’ and the results almost always depict a man. Another study found people had a different response to an identical resume depending on if the job applicant was a man or woman.

But how does a company address unconscious bias?

Company-wide training programs help staff to recognise their own implicit bias so they can make fairer decisions and introduce better company policies.

US and Canadian Starbucks employees underwent training after an incident in which two African-American men were arrested for using a Starbucks bathroom which was ‘reserved for paying customers’ while waiting for a business associate.

Companies like Unilever are more proactive in their approach, incorporating sophisticated technology into the recruitment process which eliminates unconscious bias from hiring decisions.

Extend more family-friendly policies to male employees

As long as women are considered the primary caregivers of children, we will never achieve gender equality in the workplace. Men typically only have access to two weeks paid paternity leave under the Dad and Partner scheme (and just a small proportion actually access this government entitlement). This lack of time off impacts a man’s ability to raise his family, and similarly impacts a woman’s ability to return to work and progress in her career.

Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation actually reduced their parental leave policy to six months paid leave, down from 12 months.

While few companies can afford to be as generous with their parental leave policies, most recognise that flexibility for all parents is the new benchmark.

Deloitte Australia offers its employees 18 weeks of flexible parental leave, and, if returning to work after an extended period, employees can access the 20-week Return to Work reintegration program while receiving full pay.

A number of companies are also pushing to offer paid leave to both primary and secondary parents, including Medibank, which has a FamilyFLEX policy offering up to 14 weeks paid leave for new parents, which can be used at any point up until the child turns two.

Reward employees

While work perks are nice, there may be less demand for ping-pong tables in the office and after-work bar tabs than you think.

Even free food, as well as free Ubers and taxi rides home can often be seen as a ploy to keep employees in the office longer, than actually encouraging them to eat better and get home.

What most women value in the workplace are more practical policies and opportunities: more flexibility, development training, job security and respect.

As Women’s Agenda found in its 2017 survey of women’s ambitions, getting a salary increase is also high on the priority list, something that can help to support closing the gender pay gap.

Other rewards could exist in offering employees more time to actually spend outside of work, hours or even days that may become accessible if management can identify and eliminate time-wasting activities that do nothing for productivity (such as long, regular meetings). With more time available, employers could simply encourage more staff — male or female — to actually go home and recharge, or provide the space during the day for staff to do something active.

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a number of organisations experimenting with four-day weeks, including Basecamp which offers this to employees over the Summer period. There are also companies that intentionally offer ‘school hours’ to staff in order to attract more parents.

These kinds of rewards are not only good for employee engagement, but also for career longevity  working consistently long hours can impact your productivity, lead to burnout and mental illness.

While women in today’s workforce may have it easier than the generations before us, the legacy of workplace culture and policies still make it difficult to get ahead.

We need employers to make some important changes so we can focus on getting that next promotion.

NOW READ: Women in technology: Fighting inequality starts within yourself

NOW READ: Appoint one female director, save $4.3 million: Why women on boards make corporations greener


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