Times are changing. Across the United States, more women are pursuing and completing post-secondary education than men. However, they are still earning less money on average, receive less funding for their businesses, and find themselves moving more slowly up the corporate ladder than their male counterparts. This is nothing new, and, fortunately, it is getting better.
Women in business today are combatting centuries of patriarchal control: men ruled the business world, as well as everything else. Study after study is finding that women are not only as capable as men, but in many regards even better suited to lead. It has largely been acknowledged that a lack of female leadership is one of the greatest weaknesses that a company can suffer, and policies are being implemented left, right and center in order to remedy this.
However, studies and policies can only go so far. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of each and every member of a business to right this deep-rooted historical ignorance. Unconscious bias, age-old ways of thinking, fear of judgment, and lack of consideration are all responsible for gender inequality. Here are some ways that you can shift your thoughts and actions in order to support women in business.
ACKNOWLEDGE UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
The fact that inequality continues to exist despite decades of growing awareness, and even clear company policies developed specifically to counter it, demonstrates the prevalence of unconscious bias. In so many words, unconscious bias—in this context—refers to the reactions and judgments we make of a woman based on stereotypes and other information that is inconsiderate and unfair to the particular individual.
We are talking about reactions made at the subconscious level, so this is difficult to directly manipulate. However, the least we can do is think about our unconscious bias regarding women in the workplace, acknowledge it, and at least try to drag it up and make ourselves conscious of the issue. This unconscious bias is at the root of almost every recommendation on this list.
A short-cut to acknowledge this unconscious bias is specialized training programs, which are now available throughout the United States—recommend it to your company!
GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE
Women in business routinely report a male colleague repeating points originally made by women, and subsequently receiving credit for the idea. One strategy to mitigate this phenomenon is to amplify female opinions. If a woman makes a good point, repeat and agree with her idea, making it clear that it was indeed her idea. Even one additional voice makes it that much more difficult to ignore a woman or misattribute her idea to a male.
GIVE HARSH FEEDBACK WHEN IT IS DUE
Studies have shown that women are less likely to receive harsh or difficult feedback than their male counterparts. When it comes to accounting for this behavior, the response of (overwhelmingly male) leaders is that they didn’t want to come off as mean, or hurt the employee’s feelings. While this behavior may seem like a kindness at the surface, it harms the development of women in the workplace, as clear and concise feedback is essential for development.
This is another leftover from an age where women were seen as delicate and fragile creatures. If women are playing the harsh game of business, they can handle—even deserve—the difficult feedback that is needed for proper professional development.
LEND A HAND; BE A MENTOR
Women can often feel isolated in business circles, which unfortunately more often than not can seem like boys’ clubs. If you are in a position to do so, it would go a long way to extend a hand to a woman seeking to advance in your company or industry. Everybody needs a mentor, and mentoring can be just as rewarding for the individual giving the advice as for the person receiving it. Clear and honest feedback is more useful than an open door.
This is particularly needed in facing one of the greatest challenges in the business world today, which is the overwhelming lack of female leaders. This is due in large part to every professional’s urge to mentor individuals who remind them of a younger version of themselves—a phenomenon known as similarity bias. This is an area where we are still very much feeling the hangover of patriarchy—business leaders are overwhelmingly male, and therefore hold a bias toward mentoring male employees.
As ridiculous as it seems, men in senior positions sometimes try to avoid one-on-one contact with female employees out of fear that they may be suspected of sexual misconduct or having an affair. Part of this is undoubtedly a symptom of the social climate of the Weinstein-era, and is a difficult issue to resolve.
With a culture primed and highly sensitive to any sort of sexual tones in the workplace, this point is perhaps the most difficult in this article. As the smoke of the #MeToo movement clears, we can only hope that greater understanding of and respect for boundaries will emerge, and we will be able to leave all the awkward stuff at home, and handle business with nothing but business in mind.
When there is no clear criteria for leadership at a company, the workforce will inevitably resort to stereotypical concepts of a boss, which will be drawn, among other sources, from cartoons. By defining the characteristics that a leader possesses, those characteristics become the image of leadership—traits like great coaching ability can be possessed by anyone.
Standardization is also useful in combatting the feedback issue. Setting scheduled feedback/performance evaluations for each employee has an effect on a couple elements of gender inequality. Firstly, it has an effect on reducing similarity bias by ensuring that each and every employee sees an equal amount of feedback and coaching. Additionally, it would reduce the impact of that embarrassing fear senior males may have of mentoring young female employees due to how it may appear.
With the overwhelming prevalence of unconscious bias, standardizing the way various aspects of workplace interaction—at least for the most difficult transitionary periods—just may prove to be a lasting solution. For the time being, by taking the steps outlined in this article, you can play your part in leveling the playing field, and supporting women in business to reach their full potential.