This post was written by Lenna El-Safwany, Director of Marketing at Jump Associates. Follow her on Twitter @lennalu, or connect with her directly by commenting on this post.
You’ve heard the stats around women in the workforce, particularly in technology and sciences. Day after day, our Twitter streams overflow with factoids on job stats of men vs. women. Books stack the shelves with research on the gender gap. Evening news reports shame companies that shirk the diversity issue.
Women make up over half the total workforce in the U.S., yet in STEM-related fields like technology, women only make up 26% of the workforce. Over a lifetime of work, a woman with a bachelor’s degree will earn a third less (some $700,000) than a man with a same degree. Only 24% of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. The number of women promoted to board seats in Fortune 500 companies, which steadily increased in the late twentieth century, has dropped over the last three years.
We get it. We’ve read Lean In. We gawked and rose up our arms in response to Nadella’s gaff. But what have we done about it? What can we do about it? What lessons can we learn from history, governments, and companies about how to change it? It’s time to move from rhetoric to actionable steps and transform the opportunities for women.
Just last week, the White House published this status along with the hashtag #EqualPay, which shows how dire the situation is for women four years after graduation (see leading image for the graph included in the tweet):
As Charles Dickens once said, “Washington D.C. is filled with good intentions, but the dream is far from reality.” While I applaud the White House for bringing this fact to the public’s attention, the truth is that women comprise approximately 1/3 of leadership positions in U.S. government and earn approximately 75% of the pay offered to men in the same positions. Clearly, a hashtag is a far cry from an actionable solution.
Some argue that women are at a disadvantage due to “societal norms.” Women battle the gender gap from the time they’re in pigtails to when they rock the professional bob. From elementary school on, girls get the subtle message that science and math are for boys. Girls that are otherwise capable in STEM are pushed toward social sciences. However, studies show that “the most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes into STEM studies might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” The unintentional message a young woman receives not only affects where she ends up in the workforce, but how and why she gets there.
The societal pressures don’t end there. Historically, women in work struggle with a balance between an overt “masculine” personality and “feminine” demeanor. Women who are seen as “too dominant” face the most harassment in the workplace. In the office, it’s not uncommon for women to discriminate against other women, aligning themselves with men in order to reap the implied benefits of being “one of the guys.” Some women actively distance themselves from complaints of gender bias to show loyalty to their company. The cards are stacked against women and make it tough to have equal footing in the rat race.
But we often forget that it’s not just about playing the game—it’s about changing it. We know the facts: across industries and across the world, women are under represented, underpaid, and many times, undervalued. Women can jump in, but it takes a consistent and united effort to move society past the perception of equal roles of women in work to actual equality.
Some governments and businesses successfully combat gender disparity by identifying the real issues and shifting perceptions and, ultimately, opportunities for women:
1. The Power of Government.
It’s arguable that government has the most power to affect real transformation in the perception and practice of equality in work. For years, NASA essentially, but not explicitly, banned women from space. In order to become an astronaut, one was required to first serve as a jet test pilot. But, since the US government banned women from serving as jet test pilots, this requirement effectively made it impossible for any woman to become an astronaut. Not until 1995 after the ban on combat roles was rescinded were women allowed to pilot in space.
Norway is considered the world leader in gender equality and champions a society that offers equal opportunities to both men and women. Norway went so far as amending their conscription rights to include 2 years of civil service for both men and women—the only European country and NATO member practicing gender-neutral conscription. Norway touts that rights and obligations should not inherently favor one gender over the other. Besides, they want the best recruits, and what better way to find the best of the best than to widen the pool of candidates by 50% of the entire population?
Government initiatives aren’t always the answer (nor do they always need to be this far-reaching), but they can serve as a good model for other business to imitate.
2. The Power of Business.
Forward-looking companies identify bias indicators and put metrics behind internal gender equality initiatives. The use of trigger words in a job post can affect whether a woman applies for a job, let alone lands it. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that job advertisements that do not explicitly mention the possibility of wage negotiation tend to attract men over women, since men prefer job environments where the 'rules of wage determination' are ambiguous. Job postings that use words like “ambitious” or “competitive” also attract more male candidates than women.
Google was concerned that women were not being promoted at the same rate as men within the company. Google executives created algorithms to pinpoint why women were not moving up the ranks. Google reviewed the promotion process and noted that women were not meeting the requirement that they must self-nominate for promotion. Women are not as inherently inclined to self-promotion as men. In order to combat the disparity of female leadership, Google started an initiative to teach women how to self-nominate and realized an increase of women in leadership roles.
Although initiatives to increase wages for women and get more women into fields like technology and science are well-intentioned, we won’t start seeing real progress until companies start paying attention to some of business’ less obvious gender biased practices.
3. The Power of Innovation.
The common assumption in many cases is still, unfortunately, that men have families to support and that mothers need to run home to take care of kids. Many are finding answers to such dichotomies through tech innovation. In September 2014, 150 parents, engineers, designers, and healthcare givers gathered at MIT for the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon. Aside from its excellent name, this hackathon represented a necessary step to make it easier to be a professional woman with children.
Tech advancements can ease that burden on women, allowing them to be in the office and take on long-term assignments while still caring for kids.
It’s time to stop talking about the facts and figures around gender issues, and time to start doing something to enact change. The only way to ensure that we move past disheartening statistics to real transformation of society is to learn and apply methods of change to government initiatives and business practices. Whatever the next step may be, I’m certain that it involves amore than just throwing numbers on the Twitter wall.
Photo credit: The White House via Twitter