6 simple ways to make your workplace equitable for women

International Women’s Day highlights that the gender gap is far from filled. Here are changes you can make to make your workplace more female-friendly

 
A crowd gathers behind a statue titled "Fearless Girl" Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York. The statue was installed by an investment firm in honor of International Women's Day. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

A crowd gathers behind a statue titled “Fearless Girl” Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York. The statue was installed by an investment firm in honor of International Women’s Day. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

On International Women’s Day, it’s easy to see why Canada—with our feminist Prime Minister and his gender-balanced cabinet—might be construed as a place where sexism is not really a problem. But let’s not kid ourselves: Canada is far from a bastion of workplace equity.

Only eight percent of Canada’s 100 largest companies are run by women, according to talent management firm Rosenzweig & Company. The Ontario Securities Commission reports that women comprise only 12% of board seats at TSX-listed corporations; nearly half (45%) of these companies have all-male boards. Just 19% of the CEOs leading the businesses on the 2016 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies are women.

The imbalance isn’t restricted to positions of power; in fact, gender inequity is pervasive—in some cases, overwhelmingly so—at all levels of the org chart. The only metric on Oxfam Canada’s recently published Feminist Scorecard 2017 to receive a negative “needs work” grade was our country’s efforts to address the inequalities surrounding women’s work. “Women’s efforts to build a better life are hampered by the unequal distribution of unpaid work, the gender barriers to many fields of work, the undervaluing of jobs held predominantly by women, and the often unspoken social norms that offer men higher wages and rates of promotion from the moment they enter the workforce,” according to the report.

It’s a damning assessment that helps to explain the latest round of bleak stats on women’s compensation: According to Statistics Canada data, full-time female employees earn just 74.3 cents for every dollar earned by a full-time male employee. Even factoring in men’s tendency to log more hours than women—a reality caused largely by the disproportionate share of home and family responsibilities women bear—women still earn only 87.9 cents for every dollar earned by men.

It’s clear that things have to change, not only for the sake of socioeconomic progress, but for the competitiveness of Canada’s businesses, too. Broadly speaking, women tend to be more educated, harder working and better at getting stuff done than men. Male employers, however, remain oblivious to these issues. One study found that two-thirds of men don’t believe gender bias exists in the workplace, and only 10% believe it’s a problem in their own organizations.

What follows is a list of six changes companies of all sizes can make to become more equitable places for women to work. They’re not all quick and they’re not all easy, but done together they hold the potential to make a real difference to both the women on your payroll and the economy as a whole.

1. Pay people equally for equal work

This should be a no-brainer, and has in fact been the law in Canada for more than 60 years. And yet, the wage gap persists. There are many complex systemic reasons women take home less money than men; take some time to understand them (Cass R. Sunstein at Bloomberg offers a good primer). Examine your organization to assess what you pay each employee (and why), and adjust compensation accordingly. In 2017, equal pay should be table stakes.

2. Adopt the squint test

Much has been written about why more women aren’t awarded positions of power, and many proposed solutions have been subject to great debate.

The issue of hiring quotas—as in, “50% of our hires must be women”—are controversial, even among strident proponents for gender equity. Many consider balanced slate policies—in which the pool of candidates considered for each position must include some women—a better option.

Whatever the means, the end goal ought to be equal gender representation in positions of power, and not just for optics: women make more than 80% of consumer purchases and are responsible for more than 50% of business procurement decisions. For this reason, management consultant Tom Peters advocates for what he calls the “squint test”: “When I look at photos of the executive team, and I squint, the team ought to look more or less like the market,” he explains. “That means there should be a lot more women there.” Keep that in mind. It’s a simple, but effective, way to keep your recruitment efforts from favouring one gender over another.

3. Amplify female ideas

Men talk significantly more than women in work environments. They also tend to interrupt and “mansplain” (read: explain in a condescending manner) more when there are women in the room. This type of behaviour, coupled with the fact that women often don’t take enough credit for their work, can allow great female-initiated ideas to go unheard in even the most progressive of organizations.

When Barack Obama first became President of the United States in 2009, two-thirds of his key aides were men, and they had a habit of ignoring or talking over the ideas of their female counterparts. The women on staff reacted by employing a strategy they called “amplification” during meetings. As the Washington Post explains, “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

It might not be prudent or practical to single out every point made by a woman in every meeting—in fact, that would almost certainly come across as pandering. But when you’re talking with your teams, pay attention to the women who aren’t able to get a word in edgewise. Solicit their opinions, and, when appropriate, amplify what they have to say.

4. Ditch command-and-control

Hierarchy may have a purpose, but autocracy in the workplace is not conducive to female advancement. Research suggests that while men tend to thrive in traditional command-and-control reporting structures, women do much better in  collaborative and co-operative work environments. Think: more teamwork, fewer lone-wolf exercises; more mutually beneficial back-scratching, less Darwinian competition.

There are several ways to foster a more collaborative workplace. Solicit ideas from employees at all levels. Encourage people to work together to solve problems, and reward them for team results as opposed to individual achievements. Consider adopting a leadership ethos based on servitude, not decrees. The latter approach yields remarkable results, according to Calgary-based entrepreneur Suzanne West, who runs Imaginea Energy and pals around with the likes of Richard Branson: “Service-based leaders—people who value diversity, inclusion, kindness, compassion, collaboration, integration, intuition, personal development, all the beautiful parts of being a human—are more powerful than those who use command-and-control,” she says. “It’s not about power over, it’s about power with. In my mind the organizational model of the future is to be based on this concept.”

5. Address the toddler in the room

Babies. Lots of women have ‘em; not many can take them to work. While growing ranks of men are opting to take parental leave, women remain, overwhelmingly, the ones who take a mid-career hiatus to tend to their offspring. Canada may have a pretty generous policy towards maternity and parental leave—especially compared to the U.S.—but many women still encounter significant career setbacks or experience the so-called “motherhood penalty” when they take time off to have kids, and many employers still wrestle with how to accommodate the disruption of employees going on leave.

It can be a sticky subject, but it’s worth applying a bit of creativity to support the mothers on your payroll as they work to balance the chaos of parenthood with the chaos of work. All propagation-of-the-species imperatives aside, research suggests that women with children demonstrate higher productivity over the course of their careers than their childless peers. (The idiom “If you want something done, ask a busy person” is popular for a reason.)

How to do it? You can follow the lead of managers who subsidize childcare or even build an in-office nursery to support women with young children. You can develop progressive parental leave policies that allow employees to ease back in the workforce after having kids, like Heather Payne, the founder of HackerYou and Ladies Learning Code. (She’s open-sourcing her policy so other companies can use it, too.) You can adopt flexible work policies, or orchestrate job-sharing programs, or simply discourage any office tut-tutting when Janelle has to duck out early to pick up her sick kid or Marissa can’t come to the overnight team-building social. Anything that sends the message—explicitly or implicitly—that parents aren’t to be penalized will go a long way to keeping bright female employees engaged.

6. Ask for help

No leader—male or female—should embark on the admittedly daunting task of eradicating workplace sexism alone. There are many organizations doing incredible work to advance the cause of women in the workplace—TechGirls Canada (devoted to getting more women into careers in science, technology, engineering and math) and Women in Capital Markets (devoted to helping female finance professionals progress), to name just two. They can help—or it the very least, steer you towards it.

Finally—and crucially—seek help from the women on your staff. Ask them about the barriers they face, about the work conditions they’d like to see, about how their ambitions square with the opportunities available at your organization. Listen to what they have to say, and act accordingly. Their direct feedback will prevent you from making the kind of assumptions that, frankly, got us into this mess in the first place.


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