Are women banging their heads against a glass ceiling or rooted to a sticky floor? Either way, the dreaded “invisible” barrier is alive and well—and preventing many from ascending to the most prestigious, highest-grossing positions in corporate America.
While the number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies has grown fivefold over the last decade, women still account for less than 15 percent of executives, 16 percent of board members and 8 percent of top corporate earners, according to a 2010 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focused on expanding opportunities for women and business. Worldwide, women with MBAs initially earn $4,600 less than their male counterparts and lose out on more than $400,000 in salary over a 40-year career, a Catalyst survey of more than 4,000 MBAs found.
“Women have advanced to the senior ranks, looked around and said, ‘It’s not worth it,’” says Joan Lloyd, an executive coach, syndicated columnist, and 30-year human resources veteran based in Milwaukee.
Disenchanted by the traditional path, women are increasingly striking out on their own. The number of majority women-owned businesses increased by 42 percent from 1997 to 2006, according to the nonprofit Center for Women’s Business Research. That talent drain robs companies of diverse strengths and backgrounds.
The gender gap is so pervasive that France recently instituted quotas to ensure at least 40 percent of boardroom positions are held by women, following similar legislation in Norway, Spain and Iceland.
Looking for ways to create a more equitable, competitive workplace? Here are six.
1. Recruit and promote based on talent and potential
People like to work with people who are like them. Women may be clustered in staff jobs or in highly technical jobs with limited advancement opportunities based on preconceptions about their roles and abilities. They get passed over for plum assignments, highly visible appointments to committees or boards, or stints abroad out of a vague concern for work-life balance.
Employers “automatically assume that because there are children at home, the answer is ‘no,’” explains Lloyd.
Instead, Lloyd suggests that managers cultivate talent and offer cross-training opportunities for women to move into nontraditional sectors, such as from human resources and marketing to sales and manufacturing. The insurance, banking, and health care industries have successfully implemented career development programs for women, she adds, while the manufacturing sector continues to fall behind.
2. Eliminate evaluation bias
Many employee measurement tools developed 10 to 30 years ago could use a refresher. First, identify the company’s goals for core competencies and leadership skills, and distribute the information widely. Then make sure you adhere to a standard assessment process that:
- Delivers fair, honest feedback, particularly if there is a behavioral issue hindering an employee’s path to advancement (some employers make the mistake of going softer on women)
- Includes a system of checks and balances to eliminate unconscious bias
- Actively encourages senior managers to identify and develop high-performing women—and hold both groups accountable
3. Encourage mentoring relationships
Some female employees may be reluctant to trumpet their successes and advocate for advancement for fear of being perceived as overly aggressive or “not a team player.” A well-placed senior mentor can provide crucial job feedback, help female employees navigate the organizational landscape, and champion their interests to senior management.
4. Promote gender-neutral networking
Social and professional networking is key to getting ahead. But some female employees may not relish a day of bonding at the firing range, pool hall, or paintball obstacle course. Make all employees feel welcome by focusing on gender-neutral activities, such as treating everyone to a nice meal or taking a field trip to a mountain retreat.
5. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy
It may sound like a no-brainer, but driving out harassment and discrimination from within the organization improves productivity, boosts morale and shows female employees that they are valued members of the team.
6. Provide flex-time options for all
The intersection between work and family is perhaps the biggest challenge for women aiming for the top. Employers have responded with a host of “family-friendly” programs, including flexible scheduling, job shares, sabbaticals and on-site early education. Yet resentment festers as single, childless colleagues may be asked to absorb the increased workload.
To ease tensions and be fair to everyone involved, employers should provide flexible scheduling to all employees, says Lloyd. At the same time, Lloyd urges women to have realistic expectations. If they decide to trim back their hours, they likely won’t advance as quickly as that colleague pulling 80-hour workweeks.
Margie Fishman has worked as a professional journalist for a dozen years, contributing to National Geographic, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Atlanta Business Chronicle, ConsumerSearch.com and many other media outlets.