What We Get Wrong About Women in the Workplace

It’s Women’s History Month and it feels like every brand out there is touting their commitment to supporting women.

But not all gender equality efforts are created equal. It pains me when I see well-intended companies garnering (well-deserved) negative headlines because the ways they’re acting on their proclaimed feminist values totally miss the mark. The latest example came just last week when the THINX brand of period-proof underwear was called out for not internally practicing the feminist messages they were preaching to customers, escalating into a full-scale expose on newly-filed sexual harassment claims against the CEO.

As it turns out, there are lots of ways to get your corporate gender equality efforts wrong.

I have the privilege of helping organizations and companies make sure they don’t make these mistakes. I work with Fortune 500 global brands as well as local small businesses to create data-driven, results-oriented professional development opportunities that actually combat unconscious bias at work, and provide women the tools they need to sustainably succeed.

Here are a few of the common myths about gender equality efforts in the workplace that I keep running up against.


Myth: Achieving Gender Equality Is As Simple As Hiring More Women

The reality: this isn’t a pipeline problem.

I’ve heard more than one HR professional tell me: “we don’t have a gender equality issue here because we’re hiring more women than men.” I typically respond to these remarks by asking about the gender balance up the hierarchy. Inevitably, across every industry, the senior ranks are still overwhelmingly male and pale.

With a few notable exceptions (in the building trades, for instance), I don’t believe achieving gender equality in most workplaces is about solving a pipeline problem. Rather, it’s about creating a culture of inclusion and engagement to retain and develop women leaders.

After all, women want the opportunity to lead. We’ve been earning more undergraduate and advanced degrees than men since the 1980’s. Back in 2010, women became the majority of middle managers in American workplaces, too, but it seems we’re stuck there. The gender leadership gap at the senior levels across every industry has been stalled – barely clearing 18% to 20% of women in leadership – for nearly 30 years.

There’s nothing inevitable about entry-level and middle-management women advancing into leadership. It requires an honest evaluation of the unique barriers that hold women leaders back in your workplace, and designing structural solutions that level the playing field.

Hiring more women is a good start, but it’s by no means sufficient. Smart organizations are focusing on creating cultures of inclusion and retaining diverse talent.


Myth: Some People Are Sexist, But Not Us.

The reality: we all carry unconscious bias. And we all can combat it.

It starts with acknowledging that this is how our brains are wired. Our natural reliance on cognitive short-cuts (also known as heuristics) for learning and survival mean that sometimes we rely too much on our unconscious assumptions. When unchecked, that kind of mindlessness can lead us to drawing the wrong conclusions.

This is especially challenging when it comes to women and power because the characteristics historically associated with leadership are also traditionally associated with masculinity — actions like being commanding, assertive, decisive, and authoritative. This leaves many of us needing to reconcile an unconscious mis-match in our minds. The behaviors we associate with leadership clash with what we consider being “ladylike.”

Think you’re immune? Harvard researchers have developed a simple implicit bias test you can take for free online right now to see how your unconscious gender bias manifests.

By acknowledging that we’re all human and subject to carrying unconscious bias without any malicious intent, we can see ourselves as part of the solution. Is it enough to passively accept our bias? No. But when you deny or dismiss the possibility of bias, you create silence and shame for those who feel they might have been subject to unfair assumptions.

This became relevant in that recent email experiment that made headlines when two colleagues (one man, one woman) swapped email signatures for a week and saw a dramatic shift in the tone and tenor they received from clients. Their findings were dismissed out of hand by their boss at the time, who said it could be due to any number of factors, and that gender wasn’t likely an issue. The woman behind the study took to Medium to share her frustration with the total dismissal from her boss, who refused to acknowledge that any gender bias could possibly be behind their differing outcomes. Unsurprisingly, she ended up quitting shortly thereafter.


Myth: Gender Diversity Is Nice, But Not Good Business Strategy

The reality: diversity is linked to better bottom-line business performance.

In today’s competitive talent marketplace, retaining and developing high-performing staff is a key strategy for companies who want to keep an leg up on the competition.

Inclusive cultures and organizations with truly diverse teams experience a slew of research-backed benefits: boosted employee engagement, reduced turnover, and teams that create better decisions and yield higher returns.

Diversity isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s part of a sound business strategy. As Warren Buffett himself wrote in an article he penned for Fortune Magazine:

“The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be. We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”


Myth: All Women Need The Same Support To Succeed

The reality: an intersectional approach is essential to achieving true gender equality.

Consider your last “Women’s Initiative” conversation at work. Was gender the only topic on the table? Or did you include the critical acknowledgements that bias persists on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and more?

When we silo these discussions, we ignore the experience of women who live at those intersections: women of color who experience bias based on race and gender all the time, women living with disabilities, lesbian women, etc.

We must proceed with the understanding that not “all women” experience bias in the same way, and those differences are important in understanding the unique challenges women in your workplace experience.


Myth: Empowering Women At Work Is Bad For Men

The reality: gender equality is good for all of us.

Last month, Tesco Chairman John Allan showed just how threatening leadership parity can be to the white male ego when he proclaimed that white men serving on boards are an “endangered species,” despite the Tesco board itself being 100% white and 73% male.  

When going from a historical dominance that left men in charge of nearly 100% of our global institutions to now, when men hold only 96% of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 89% of Fortune 500 Board seats, even the smallest step towards equality in leadership can feel like an inquisition.

Despite these paltry steps towards a more equitable leadership picture at the very top, the policies that support women’s leadership up and down the hierarchy are good for men and working families as well. Paid parental leave, protected sick leave, flexible work schedules, merit-based promotions. These are good for freeing all of us – men and women – to lead full and happy lives at work and at home.

That’s why it’s imperative we include men in these discussions around equality, a requirement I have at my company for whenever we’re training on combating unconscious bias.

There are a myriad of ways in which organizations are adapting for the workforce of the future – and gender equality plays a huge role in how we do that.

How is your company seeking to make real and tangible steps to level the playing field for both men and women to achieve their full potential? Share your experience in the comments below and help me shine a spotlight on the organizations who are getting this right.

This was originally published in my Forbes Leadership column and reposted here with permission.


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