A tipping point, by definition, is a series of small changes or incidents that become significant enough to cause a larger, more important change. A tipping point also represents the time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped.
From the #MeToo movement to the popularity of the city-by-city Women’s March to a record-breaking 102 women now serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, many signs point to a tipping point for women to make unprecedented personal and professional strides this year. Many would call it a long-overdue arc bending toward justice and gender equality.
As civilized society goes, so go first-world countries and governments and . . . so it stands, goes Corporate America. And while the bottom-line impact of women in the workplace and on the GDP is plain (and remarkable) for all to see, there is much progress to be made both systemically and behaviorally.
Saying we still have a long way to move the needle is a sad understatement. To use a phrase that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg coined in her book Lean In, men need to “lean in” and become true allies of women. It’s either that or step aside, fellas. Stat.
“I welcome the broader societal conversation that seems to be happening, but we are just scratching the surface,” said Karen Kelley, chief learning officer at WorldatWork. “There’s a long history of women being perceived as less capable than men, and that perception is so deeply embedded in our culture that even being able to perceive and articulate it takes a persistent, and likely unpopular, act of will.”
Daily headlines and select data nuggets all indicate the empowerment of women and the advancement of women initiatives are undeniably on the rise. And with March being Women’s History Month, there’s no better time for Workspan magazine to celebrate the many hard-fought victories and accomplishments earned by women of various races, ethnicities and religions in and on the workplace. (See “Legal History of Women at Work in the United States.”)
But let’s not pat ourselves too much on the back, boys. The entitled androcentric world of Don Draper (Mad Men) may be a true-to-life fictional portrayal of a 1960s advertising firm, but the sexism of men in seats of power (and alleged savages such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein) follows every one of us like bloodhounds on a fox hunt.
“While management may sanction more training, that’s not doing anything to change the underlying culture,” said Stacey Gordon, founder and CEO of Rework Work. “Companies need to go further by adding respect in the workplace and civility training, as well as ongoing leadership training and coaching. They also need to ask their employees how they feel the company is doing. What is working and what isn’t, then actually take action to fix what isn’t working.”
Contending with a Vicious Cycle
While the #MeToo movement has brought offensive behavior to light and has made it easier for women to speak up, the onus seems to be on women alone to do something — and that is simply wrong.
Many women face everyday discrimination, including microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. These negative experiences add up. So how do successful female executives overcome this toxic environment?
“No one overcomes this environment,” Kelley said. “We are all part of it.” Gordon agrees.
“An individual cannot overcome this type of [discriminatory] environment on her own,” she said. “If there isn’t a real focus on the issue and a desire to change through adequate training, then the individual has to leave the environment. It’s not the job of the woman to fix the issue.
“Ideally, others in meetings, working on projects and making decisions should not only identify the behavior within themselves, but also observe this behavior in others and speak up. They have to say something. Remaining quiet is harmful because it is tacit consent to the behavior.”
One step forward, two steps back. There’s a pattern of blind, passive abuse here that men no longer can deny.
“It’s a real thing even in the best work cultures,” said Charu Sharma, CEO of Next Play Inc. “These daily microaggressions add up and severely affect one’s self-esteem. I was lucky to have mentors who validated me and helped me carve a path around the naysayers. Sometimes it meant having an honest conversation with someone at work to tell them how I felt. At other times, it meant explicitly promoting myself to be perceived as the expert, and at other times, it meant quitting that environment.”
While companies are more vigilant about lawsuits and “feel the need to signal to employees and customers that they care about diversity and inclusion,” leaders need to fundamentally believe in equality for real change to occur.
“I don’t believe that [change] can be created by instilling a fear of lawsuits,” Sharma said. “Instead, we need to tell more stories and have more conversations for people to see ‘the other’ as competent humans.”
For proof that companies are advancing bold and significant women initiatives, one need to look no further than the UN Women HeForShe 2018 Report. But when only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women — even though half the entering workforce has been women for the last 30 years — it’s no wonder that many women are exasperated. They have had #enough.
“I am both sorry and angry about all of the energy women have expended, and will continue to expend, to cope with everyday discrimination — by rising above it, by fighting it, by convincing themselves it isn’t personal, by being diminished by it and then building themselves up again, only to be diminished again,” Kelley said. “What a vicious cycle. It goes on endlessly. Think about how much more creatively all of that energy could be used.”
Shining a Spotlight on Pay Equity
The gender pay gap has closed some since the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, but many politicians and media accounts cite studies that claim women are still paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. Some compensation thought leaders contend such conclusions are oversimplifications because they fail to consider job-related pay equity factors such as disparate pay for different professions, the availability of advancement opportunities, education, work experience, tenure and pay-for-performance.
Korn Ferry research discovered that when evaluating men and women at the same job level in the United States, such as director, the wage gap falls from around 20% to 7%. And, when considering the same level within the same company, the gap is further reduced to 2.6%. When male and female employees at the same level and the same company worked in the same function, the average gap amounted to 0.9%.
WorldatWork published two articles in 2018 that challenged the “80 cents on the dollar” contention. John H. Davis, Ph.D., CCP, took a deep statistical dive into the gender pay gap in an October 2018 Workspan article and John Kilgour, Ph.D., detailed the history of gender pay gap legislation in a second quarter WorldatWork Journal research paper.
However, Korn Ferry associate client partner Tracy Bosch, who is based in Canada, said an unconscious bias in pay still exists.
“I get disheartened when I hear HR leaders and reward professionals tell me that gender pay is not a priority issue for them because they’ve done their pay equity analysis and closed gaps where they needed to,” Bosch said. “In the majority of cases, pay equity analyses are approached from the perspective of compliance with legislation and don’t go far enough to identify and address opportunities to close the actual gender pay gap.” Bosch said examples of unconscious bias in pay include:
- Limiting analyses to base salary only and not testing whether there is gender bias in how incentives are designed and/or distributed
- Excluding gender analysis of performance ratings, merit increases and performance bonuses
- Compartmentalizing analyses for specific parts of the business or specific job families instead of testing for equal pay for work or equal value across the organization.
Policymakers at all levels of government are paying attention to the gender wage gap and passing new laws that they hope will combat inherent biases when it comes to gender pay.
“We can probably discuss the merits and faults of country or regional legislation, but it does put a spotlight on pay equity, where leaders and HR are not just asking the questions, but also taking actions to address pay equity issues if they see them,” said Susan Brown, senior director of compensation at Siemens USA.
In the United States, 11 states have now passed salary history bans prohibiting employers from asking job candidates about their prior salary history. In California, employers are also required to provide job applicants with a pay range if requested. This requires the employer to price the job prior to selecting a candidate and removes the loophole of relying on salary expectations. This is a trend other jurisdictions could adopt soon.
In Iceland, employers with 25 or more employees are now required to prove they are paying employees doing the same job equally, regardless of gender, race or sexuality. Employers will be required to obtain a certification from the government validating their equal pay practices.
Other countries are focusing on pay transparency measures. In Germany, employees can ask to see how their own salary compares to their peers in corresponding roles. And the United Kingdom now requires employers with 250 or more employees to disclose their unadjusted or raw gender wage gap.
“The mandatory gender pay gap reporting in the UK has shone the light on the shortcomings of pay equity legislation and has forced people to have some tough conversations about systemic biases that have been swept under the carpet for decades,” Bosch said. “So I would call that progress, but we will need to see a lot more people looking at the issue a lot more broadly before we start to see the numbers change materially.”
Many other countries are dealing with pay inequity and the gender wage gap. “It’s an issue that employers must address,” said Melissa Murdock, WorldatWork director of external affairs. Until the gap closes, policymakers will continue to search for solutions to force the issue.
Addressing Unconscious Bias
The fundamental change in mindset and action all begins and ends with cultural transformation and leading by example.
“If you simply think ‘Of course I’m inclusive and respectful,’ you’re not really paying attention. You’re taking the easy route,” Kelley said. “It’s fine to say you want to be inclusive and respectful, but we need to acknowledge that we’re not, that we are affected by unconscious bias, and that that bias affects our thoughts and our actions in every moment and in every situation.”
Starting from the top and pointedly cascading down, leaders and managers have a responsibility to examine their own biases and acknowledge their power.
“Rather than relying on gut feel, we have to have standard procedures upfront to choose the right person for the project and then we have to use standard and objective metrics to measure performance at the end of the project,” Gordon said.
Although organizations may employ many strategies to address unconscious bias in hiring and promotion, three of the most effective solutions, according to Aon partner Meredith Jones, include:
- Sponsorship. We hear a lot about the need for mentorship for women, and certainly strong mentors can help to improve issues around diversity and inclusion. However, sponsorship takes the concept of mentoring a step further. Rather than merely acting as sounding boards and role models for employees, sponsors make a point of pulling subordinates along in their wake. When they get a promotion, they may recommend a capable junior employee to take on their former role. When an employee does a fantastic job on a project, his or her sponsor might take on the role of publicizing that fact. Historically speaking, men have done an outstanding job of sponsoring other men, but, for a number of reasons, junior women haven’t always been able to maximize sponsor relationships. By encouraging sponsorship within an organization, employers may be able to moderate some of the unconscious bias around the perception of performance, while simultaneously mitigating women’s tendency to not promote themselves as effectively as men in the workplace.
- Diverse hiring/promotion committees. Ensuring that any hiring or promotion decisions are made with input from a number of diverse team members also can help temper unconscious performance bias. Individuals tend to favor either people who look like them, or candidates who look like they are from “central casting” for a particular job — which usually results in the same type of candidates getting plum roles over and over again. Opening the evaluation and decisionmaking process up to a broader array of employees can help female and diverse candidates get a fairer shot at any open positions.
- Female candidate requirement. For any new hire, new role or promotion, include at least one female candidate in the mix. There’s nothing that says you must hire this candidate, but the simple act of exposing the company to different looks, skill sets and styles can help to break down unconscious bias. The National Football League has a similar policy, the “Rooney Rule,” in which a team must interview at least one minority candidate when hiring a head coach or senior operations official.
Leadership with a Sledgehammer
Since 2015, Corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation in the C-suite. Only about one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 25 is a woman of color, according to the Women in the Workplace 2018 study by Leanin.Org and McKinsey & Co.
For the fourth year in a row, the study concludes that the underrepresentation of women in senior management cannot be explained by attrition.
“I’d like to say that it’s because there are no qualified women at that level,” Gordon said. “If that statement were true, it would mean women are no longer being affected by bias and discrimination and that all women have to do is work hard to achieve progress . . . However, we know that’s not the case and what’s disappointing is it shows the lack of motivation to do anything.”
Perhaps we’re focusing too much on the negative and not asking the right questions.
“I think the better question is, ‘What will happen for the ones that do achieve the diverse levels they target?’,” Brown said. “The ideal [scenario] would be that those companies can attract talent more easily, provide stronger career paths that lead to retention and have a diverse mindset that leads to innovation and better results. Those visible success stories will help move the needle more than anything else.”
In the European Union, some countries have legislation mandating more women on boards, and California just did the same, requiring at least one female on each board of directors.
“Only time will tell if this will be effective but in 2019, rather than asking, ‘Will this legislation work,’ we should be asking why it’s still necessary,” Gordon said. For women executives who have reached and smashed the glass ceiling with a sledgehammer, the journey through the cube farm and up the proverbial corporate ladder has been long and arduous.
“If we’re talking about power and money, our internal images generally revolve around men in suits in expensive offices. Those are the archetypal heroes in our mythologies around business,” Kelley said. “Examining issues of discrimination and inclusion require insight into the inner workings of the human psyche, which is something our culture — and particularly our culture as it relates to business and money and power — likes to ignore or devalue.”
The gauntlet, gentlemen, has been thrown. Who among us will advocate for women everywhere who are breaking down barriers, raising their voices and fighting for what they believe in?
Legal History of Women at Work in the U.S.
WorldatWork colleagues Brett Christie, Jim Fickess and Linda Larson contributed to this article.