Although the conversation around gender equality in the workplace is getting louder, there is still an enormous amount of work to do to realize it. While many companies are theoretically supportive of gender equality, few are backing this attitude up with actions.
In this article, we explore a few simple ways in which any business could proactively build a more inclusive, gender-balanced workplace. In each case, there is the need for male colleagues and bosses to adopt new attitudes and awareness of the experiences of those of other gender identities.
While not a substantial list, these are practical steps which would create progress in the right direction, and at potentially zero financial cost.
Growth of male allyship
One of the keys to eliminating gender bias from the workplace is improving male allyship. Allies are people who work for social justice from positions of dominance: If those people can improve their “gender intelligence” and become strong advocates for change, then efforts for gender inclusion and equity are much more likely to succeed.
A key element of gender intelligence is situational awareness. As many as 77 percent of men will not consciously notice sexual harassment in real time. What this leads to is a workforce of men who — despite being pro inclusion and equity — become more like bystanders than real advocates.
An increasing number of companies are encouraging (or insisting) that male employees (especially those in more senior positions) attend specialized training on male allyship. These seek to shine a light on sexual discrimination and teach men to become more attuned to what’s actually happening in their team, office, or company. As a small example, men learn to:
- Notice simplified language or assumptions that define people by a single identity
- Pick up on condescending or patronizing language
- Notice when colleagues feel uncomfortable, marginalized, or threatened by workplace behavior
- Recognize common workplace behaviors they hadn’t noticed before (such as nonverbal cues)
- Be consciously more intentionally inclusive
- Develop a deeper understanding of the workplaces experiences of those who do not identify as male
Building allies is a proactive way to open the eyes of male colleagues who do believe in equality, but have little personal experience of inequality. These allies can use their position of authority to prompt faster, more substantial progress.
Commitment to maternity leave policies
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 16 weeks leave for new mothers. In the US, women have a legal right to:
- 0 weeks maternity leave (for companies under 50 employees)
- 12 weeks unpaid leave (for larger companies)
This is completely at odds with the rest of the industrialized world. In the UK, every single new mother is entitled to statutory maternity leave of up to 52 weeks, with six weeks at 90 percent of earnings and 38 weeks on a smaller stipend. All new parents (male and female) in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80 percent of their normal pay.
Paid maternity leave allows new parents to raise their children better, recover fully from the ordeals of birth, and massively reduce stress. Even better, it makes them more committed employees on returning to work with better retention, loyalty, and morale.
The stress of “taking time off” for new mothers
There’s no hard number, but a huge percentage of new mothers are put under undue stress and pressure to return quickly to work. From semi-joking comments about “being on vacation” or “milking it,” to more serious allegations of laziness or threats of replacement, many women are unable to use maternity leave for its intended purpose: to fully recover from giving birth and settle in with their child.
This perception forces women to put their career “on hold,” be overlooked for promotions, and — if they return part-time — heavily marginalized or significantly overworked. Maternity leave stigma means that women with longer periods away from work are seen as less desirable and less committed, eventually hurting their career prospects.
It’s essential that we allow women of child-bearing age to take the time off they need, knowing there’s a secure job and welcoming team waiting for them. Without that, a majority of women will continue to face a complex and difficult situation that no male colleague will ever go through.
Acceptance of part-time and working from home
This is one area where, albeit forced by the pandemic, we have seen some real progress. The eras of male breadwinners and stay-at-home wives are far behind us. Not only does this model break down for non-hetero couples, it’s simply not fit for a progressive workforce.
As women remain the dominant caregivers of young children, businesses need to accept that occasionally their availability will be hampered, or a piece of work might be slightly late, due to the need to look after their child during the day. (This is true for male parents too, but to a lesser extent since women are still the main caregiver for most young children.)
The pandemic has forced many of us into remote positions from which we’re unlikely to return anytime soon. Since this was thrust on all parents simultaneously, work from home with kids quickly became normalized. When the CEO’s kids occasionally break in and crash a conference call, it’s no big deal; when a woman has to duck out of a meeting because her kid is home early and is tearing the house down, that’s okay too.
Recognizing that women who choose to have children must be treated equally — or even with more respect — is a massive step toward creating a more level playing field in work.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the ways companies need to adjust policies and attitudes within their walls to foster better equality in the workplace. However, these are areas where any company can make progress right now.
A recurring theme across all of the above points is that we require men — especially men in dominant positions — to become significantly more aware of what their colleagues experience, and become advocates for change. Education is paramount, as is shining the spotlight on bad practices and holding those involved accountable.
The Western world is more aware than ever to the realities of gender inequality in the workplace — it’s now time to become more active in addressing it.
Ready to review perceptions of inclusivity in your workplace? Start with an inclusivity survey template and foster conversation and growth.