The case for gender equality in the workplace is overwhelming, yet progress remains at a glacial pace. In fact, we are getting further away from gender parity at work: the World Economic Forum reported that in 2021 we were 268 years away from closing the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, compared to 202 years in 2018.
Yet, I have seen first-hand that ‘quick wins’ today can create ripples for a big change in the future. My new book, Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work, outlines the work needed to update an antiquated business world that wasn’t designed for women to thrive; for this to happen, it needs to be leaders who take action to progress gender equality, who role model inclusive behavior and create the level playing field needed to retain women and create a better culture for all.
Whether you are already starting to think about gender equality in your organization or have been struggling with it for a while, there are ways you can personally drive change. Here I outline five steps to consider in your journey.
Step one: Educate yourself
First up, you need to develop an awareness of gender equality and ask yourself some questions: do you understand the obstacles women in your company face? Are you aware of why women leave your organization? Do you challenge your own thinking about gender? Look at practical ways to improve your knowledge: if you don’t understand the obstacles, talk to your HR team about how it supports women (whether with caring responsibilities or hormonal challenges) and identify gaps where improvement is needed. If you don’t understand why women leave your business, consider adding ‘stay interviews’ in addition to ‘exit interviews’, to create opportunities for employees to voice why they might leave their role and what would make them stay. And find opportunities to learn: perhaps by attending a women’s network event or introducing reverse mentoring.
Step two: Adapt your personal leadership style
Consider if you are an inclusive leader by assessing where you fall within the PACETM framework, which I developed to recognize the five behavioral traits exhibited by inclusive leaders: Passion, Accountability, Curiosity, and Empathy. Look at these traits through a lens of gender equality: are you passionate about tackling gender issues and include them regularly on the agenda? Do you take accountability for progressing gender equality in your company? Are you curious to learn more about the issue? Do you have empathy for those different from you, and can you put yourself in their shoes? Inclusive leaders, with D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) in their DNA, drive change and make a difference. If your answers to any of the above are no, look at ways you can improve: this might be having more conversations with women in your team, and learning about the challenges they face; it could be seeking input from others when you don’t have solutions to a business issue; it might be making a public statement about your intentions for the next year to keep yourself accountable; perhaps you’ll add recognition that rewards efforts that drive change in gender equality into performance reviews.
Step three: Consider the culture of your organization through a gender lens
Look at the culture of your business and ask if you have the right frameworks to allow women to thrive: these should include flexibility, allyship, and coaching. If you offer flexible work, be careful you are not creating a two-tier workforce (e.g., women with caring responsibilities working from home and men in the office). Also, consider whether your company is truly flexible and can offer personalized flexibility to ensure those who need it most can work to a schedule that fits their lifestyle. Assess the ally culture in your office and ask if your employees know what it means to be an ally to women: if the answer is no, consider running a workshop or coaching. If your organization doesn’t have a coaching culture, educate yourself on the benefits, this can offer and how it can create the support system needed to retain women.
Step four: Understand the obstacles that women face
There are still many challenges that women may face, inside and outside of work, that is considered taboo, such as menopause, fertility problems, and miscarriage. There are ways for companies to help women, including having systems and processes in place to let employees know confidential support available should they need it: healthcare support, miscarriage leave, or virtual workshops on topics such as menopause. Coaching can also help those struggling with well-being issues or who need guidance to overcome confidence challenges. It can also be beneficial to create a hub of information for managers to easily access, so they can feel confident when needing to support a female colleague. When considering challenges with caring responsibilities, it’s also helpful to look at whether men in your company are encouraged to take a role in caring (whether childcare, eldercare, or other care): assess your shared parental leave policy and consider if your company actively supports male colleagues who might be eligible to use it.
Step five: Start making changes today
If you want change to happen, it has to start today: this can’t be something that’s added to the next quarter’s agenda or next year. Look at your own actions and the legacy you want to leave: put together objectives across the next few years with the help of colleagues, so you can hold yourself accountable. To make progress, add gender to your business priorities and daily agenda; when change doesn’t happen, take the time to assess why. Be a role model and stand up for these issues: look for opportunities to influence your peers to ensure others follow your lead.
Together we can create a better future for us all if we all start implementing small steps today toward better gender balance in the future.
About the Author:
Joy Burnford is the Founder and CEO of Encompass Equality, a recognized gender equality trailblazer, and the author of a new #1 bestseller book, ‘Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work’. With over 25 years of experience as a business leader, non-exec director, podcast host, and speaker, she supports organizations to navigate a path to gender equality and enables the retention and progression of women in the workplace. Joy and her team do this through research and consulting, leadership development programs, knowledge sharing, and coaching.