100 years ago, on 6th February 1918, (some) women were finally given the right to vote. It was actually another decade before women were given the same voting rights as men but glossing over that, the right to vote was a huge step forward in terms of equality for women. It was the first of several victories including the right to run for parliament, domestic violence legislation, maternity leave and equal pay legislation.
A century on and it often feels that progress for women is now painfully slow, glacial even, particularly when it comes to women in the workplace. The stats speak for themselves:
- The Gender Paygap still hovers around 9% and in some instances is going backwards- The pay gap for women in their 20s is now five times greater than it was in 2011 (ONS).
- The number of female CEOs remains stubbornly low. We’ve all heard the statement that there are more men named David—eight—and men named Steve or Stephen—seven—among the top CEOs than there are female chief executives—six
Very few people could rationally argue we have reached the stage where there is gender equity or equality.
Yet there are pockets of organisations that seem to be making more progress than others-SMEs being one of them:
- Just over 40% of SMEs have women in senior positions in their company (Aldermore)
- 20 % of SMEs are led by women (HOC)
Why are SMEs leading the way?
Perhaps it’s because SMEs may be able to be more agile in their human resourcing strategy and keep step with changing demands?
It could be because talent can be more easily identified and promoted in a smaller organisation, whereas in bigger companies where this is more difficult, it is all too easy for those who shout loudest to make the fastest progress. With research consistently showing that women are less comfortable with self-promotion than men and often frame achievement in terms of their team rather than their own input, it’s a theory that has some legs.
It could be because navigating the promotion process in a larger organisation is more difficult and for multiple, complex reasons women are not given as much support in this as men. This was an issue highlighted in LHH Penna’s diversity and inclusion report that stated women are much more likely to feel they have not been given sufficient career guidance as part of the promotion game, with four in 10 (40%) reporting this to be an issue in comparison to just a quarter of men (26%).
It could be because the approach that larger corporations have taken to increase diversity have often not only failed but in some instances have made things worse. A report by Claudio Garcia and Tammy Heerman from Lee Hecht Harrison highlights two issues that may be causing many diversity initiatives to fail.
1. Affinity and minority-only programmes may do more harm than good
In the late 1990s, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published some research that looked at the impact of “stereotype threat” on the maths performance of men and women. The study suggests that the traditional negative stereotype that presumes women are worse than men at maths actually caused them to perform worse.
The researchers created two control groups that included both men and women. The first group was given a maths test and told that women typically score worse than men. The second group was told that men and women scored the same. In the first group, the women who were reminded of the stereotype underperformed; in the second group, the men and women produced very similar test scores.
Heerman says “Given the failure of diversity initiatives in general,we might have to ask ourselves if minority-focused development and mentoring programmes serve only to reinforce stereotypes about who succeeds and who fails. Based on the research above, it appears that someone who is often reminded that they are different, despite starting on an equal footing, can fail to perform.”
2. “Cultural fit” is often at odds with diversity
Heerman believes that “Cultural fit can, and has, inadvertently eclipsed diversity goals. This is quite evident in places like the tech sector, where the whole concept of “fit” has been applied by hiring managers to find people that “think like me” or even “look like me.” If the hiring managers are not from a minority group, and a good many are not, then the cultural fit default often prompts the hiring of people that look, sound, and think like the people already populating an organisation’s workforce.”
So what practical steps can organisations, regardless of size, do today to accelerate the glacial progression of women?
Heerman gives 4 areas of focus that could make a difference:
1.Start at the front end with a push to redesign recruiting and hiring practices to avoid bias and question sacred cow criteria. It’s rare that we question long-standing hiring criteria, especially when it’s defended by the concept of “cultural fit,”. But it’s important to challenge these criteria to see if inadvertent filters are present. For example, executives of a golf association decided they wanted to hire more women. However, a long held hiring criterion was that employees needed to be low-handicap golfers. That automatically weeded out a lot of promising female candidates, who may have been very good at their jobs but bad golfers.
2.Put a different face forward. The perceptions of candidates will be largely determined by the person they meet on the other side of the table in a job interview. A major financial institution recently decided to ban male leaders from conducting interviews at their alma maters, out of a concern that these interviews did nothing but produce a cadre of “mini-mes”. Instead they expanded the recruiting team to include a more diverse group of interviewers.
3.Dispel myths to educate. A railway decided it wanted to hire more women in certain key areas of the company. This included train conductors — one of the most male-dominated roles of all time. The railway’s HR leader decided to expose candidates to webinars hosted by female recruiters, hiring managers, and women that formerly or currently worked as conductors. This clearly and powerfully dispelled the myth that women could not be train conductors. The strategy not only increased female applicants, it increased the hire rate of females in multiple jobs across the company.
4.Use leadership development programmes to build a diverse pipeline of leaders. While Affinity programs are great for networking and support, history has shown they don’t significantly improve the leadership diversity within an organisation. You need to embed diversity objectives into all your talent development processes, particularly leadership development. Track the results of these programmes. Are they building a more diverse pipeline of talent and leaders? If the outcome is not as diverse as planned, then you need to go and make sure you respected the diversity imperative at the front end of these programmes.
With the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) indicating that closing the gender pay gap could add £150 billion to the UK economy and with many studies showing that organisations with females on the board tend to perform better than those without, it’s clear why the goal of workplace diversity has never been as important as it is today. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fair thing to do. And it’s the commercially savvy thing to do.
Let’s hope in another 100 years, this is no longer a debate we need to have.
As originally seen on the Lee Hecht Harrison Penna website.