No matter how much companies claim they try to eliminate unconscious bias, promote fair wages and encourage diversity, women are still underpaid and under-valued at virtually every step in their careers. Even more alarming, most studies suggest that the problem is actually getting worse.
A 2017 World Economic Forum report found that the gender gap is now so prevalent that gender parity in the workplace won’t be achieved for another 217 years — up from 170 years in 2016.
Despite the fact that 57 percent of college grads are now female, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level according to McKinsey. That effectively shrinks the female talent pipeline from day one. And even if they do get hired, their chances of promotion are limited. A 2018 Accenture report found women are 22 percent less likely to reach manager level than their male peers regardless of their qualifications; and only about 1 in 5 senior leaders are women.
These numbers are consistent everywhere. LinkedIn found that women represent fewer than 50 percent of leaders in every single industry analyzed. In tech it’s even worse: Just 25 percent of the technology workforce is female, and the majority say they experience and observe significantly more unfair treatment than men.
They also get paid less. Visier found that despite the fact that women achieve top performer status more frequently than men, they still earn less than 80 cents for each dollar earned by men. “Despite all the attention and knowledge about gender equality there has been no collective improvement in the pay gap,” said Josie Sutcliffe, vice president of marketing for Visier and lead author of the study.
One of the reasons so little has changed, is that most people don’t see it as a problem that affects them or their companies — even if they are in the middle of it. Consider Sarah Goff-Dupont, principal content marketing lead for Atlassian, a global enterprise software company. She spent her early career as a quality assurance tester at a video game company, where she was one of just a handful of female employees and often the only woman on her teams, yet she never noticed gender bias or the lack of women in her world. “I never felt like my gender slowed me down,” she said. She just assumed no other women wanted to work in that environment.
But when she was hired at Atlassian, she started having conversations with women who felt marginalized in their careers or pushed out of key roles. “That’s when I realized the gap existed,” she said.
Tired of Hearing About It
Goff-Dupont had always attributed her success to having a spunky, outspoken attitude that fit well in an all-boys club environment, though she now acknowledges that that’s not fair.
“You should be able to be who you are and still be successful,” she said. Since joining Atlassian, she’s begun mentoring other women on how to speak up for themselves and demand raises and promotions. “It’s one small way I can lend my privilege to other women in my network.”
While her efforts are a great start, the gender gap cannot be closed by individual business leaders — male or female. When leaders champion women’s rights in their departments, it benefits those individual women, but it doesn’t create long-term change in the organization, said Matt Krentz, a Chicago-based senior partner and managing director for Boston Consulting Group, a global business management consulting group.
“This is not a problem that can be fixed in a five-year period, which is the average span of a leader’s tenure,” he said. “If the next leader doesn’t value their efforts, the programs will quickly stagnate and things go back to the way they were.”
The reality of all these data points is that current workplace diversity programs likely aren’t working, and the longer they linger the worse it gets. Atlassian recently completed a report showing diversity fatigue is now a problem.
While 80 percent of respondents in the survey agree that diversity is important and improves business outcomes, only about a third actually participate in conversations or working groups to improve inclusion, and just 1 in 5 actively engages leadership on how to create a more inclusive environment.
“Those who aren’t advocates are tired of hearing about it, and those who are, are frustrated by the lack of change,” said Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion for Atlassian in San Francisco.
If companies fail to address these issues, it doesn’t just prevent women from moving up in the company — it causes them to leave, said Frances Taplett, global people director for BCG in Boston. “When talented women don’t find sponsors or a culture of inclusivity they leave the corporate world for other things.” That should be a concern for companies struggling to find and keep top talent, especially considering Visier’s data showing women are consistently rated as better performers than their male peers.
“When women leave and don’t come back you lose some of the best talent in your leadership pipeline,” Sutcliffe said.
Diversity Training Doesn’t Work
Even when companies do try to make changes, a lot of the go-to programs don’t work. For example, most companies start by setting diversity requirements for recruiting as a quick way to feel out their female ranks. But if they fail to make any other changes, those new hires often don’t feel welcomed or comfortable, Blanche said. “You have to evolve the culture first, then hire the right people.”
Other companies rely too heavily on diversity training, which has been statistically proven not to work, said Taplett. “A once a year course won’t change behavior, especially when no one believes they are biased.” Employee resource groups are another well-intentioned diversity effort that often falls flat, particularly when no male leaders or executives participate. Instead of promoting change, a women’s ERG becomes a place where women go to complain about the lack of change, she said.
That’s not to say gender parity can’t be accomplished. It just needs to be tackled from a more holistic standpoint. “Change has to be mandated from the top and the middle,” Krentz said. Companies need to identify where their biggest diversity issues are — in hiring, advancement or retention — then put resources in place to address those problems. That can include requiring diverse candidate pools for every new hire and promotion, creating transparency around salaries, and implementing flexible work and parent leaves to create a more inclusive environment where women can thrive.
They also need to hold every manager accountable, driving change on their teams, Blanche said. “When you set diversity goals from a corporate level it can be overwhelming; but if you give each individual actionable steps they can take, everyone becomes responsible for inclusion.”
Finally, don’t let the mommy-track derail great talent, Sutcliffe said. The gender divide often widens midcareer when management opportunities collide with the decision to have children.
“When motherhood becomes a priority, women are less likely to consider management roles,” Sutcliffe said. Even if they are open to those opportunities a few years later, their perceived value is often diminished due to taking time off, preventing these talented employees from moving up the ranks.
History has proven that the workplace gender gap is not a problem that can be easily fixed, but companies should be able to do better than this. Those that do make changes will be better positioned for success going forward, Krentz said. “The workforce of the future will be a lot more diverse,” he said. “If you want to be able to attract top talent, diversity in the workplace will be required.”
Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.