When it comes to gender equality, we still have miles to go. The pandemic, which saw a massive exodus of women from the workforce, was a major setback in women’s representation in the labour force and has left an indelible mark on our collective memory. It has forever morphed the trajectory of progress for gender parity, and now it might take a whopping 131 years to close the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2023 Global Gender Gap Report.
Data provided by LinkedIn to the WEF covering 163 countries around the globe shows that while women account for 41.9 per cent of the workforce in 2023, the share of women in senior leadership positions (director, vice-president or C-suite) is only 32.2 per cent, and this varies considerably by industry. In artificial intelligence, talent availability has surged, increasing sixfold between 2016 and 2022, yet the percentage of women working in AI today is approximately 30 per cent.
Furthermore, women remain significantly underrepresented in the total STEM workforce at just 29.2 per cent. These stats are baffling as women consistently outperform men in STEM education, and yet, are undervalued and underrepresented. Not surprisingly, women’s representation in leadership roles in the tech industry is one of the lowest at 24 per cent.
Women bring creative thinking and unique points-of-view to the table which are vital ingredients for innovation—an unarguable differentiator in today’s uber competitive world. Yet, there are only a handful of women at the helm of major corporations as CEOs. For years, the number of women in the top jobs has oscillated between a meagre five to eight per cent. In 2023, we may have cause to raise a small toast of celebration as the number of women CEOs touch the milestone of ten percent for the first time. But, with the glass ceiling firmly in place, women won’t cue the confetti just yet.
Shattering the glass ceiling: an uphill battle
The glass ceiling is real, it isn’t invisible, and there is not a silver bullet in sight that can annihilate the barriers for women, and there are far too many of these barriers.
Implicit bias and ageism is rampant at the workplace. In the UK, nearly 50 per cent women surveyed claim to have faced discrimination and an alarming 20 percent have quit over allegations of harassment. The challenges are compounded for those from minority backgrounds. An eye opening study by Yale University revealed that even scientists, known for their objectivity, tend to hire men over women even when the candidates have the same CVs and skill sets, and at considerably higher salaries.
Getting their foot in the door for the right job that they want, and deserve, is just one of many challenges women face. Discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, and even appearance is still widespread in the recruitment process. Stories of blatant bias corroborated from candidates and recruiters alike hold a mirror to the unconscious bias that still lives and thrives in our society and workplaces.
Studies show that hiring managers are conditioned to pick male candidates over females candidates even when their qualifications and experiences are at par. Pew Research highlighted the double standards that exist in recruitment that leads to differential pay packages being offered to male and female candidates for the exact same job.
Women form 41 per cent of the working population today but lose an average of 4 per cent hourly pay when starting a family which adds up to a significant loss of lifetime earnings. On return to work, most new mothers are met with the ‘broken rung’, the missing step on the corporate ladder that sees them being passed up for promotions and pay rises. New fathers on the other hand usually get a 6 per cent average pay rise. This motherhood penalty is playing a major role in widening the pay gap and holding women back from senior leadership positions, and keeping the glass ceiling firmly in place.
New moms also feel compelled to work twice as hard to prove their competency and commitment at work. This added stress grossly impacts the mental health of working mothers, and paired with lack of flexible working options on offer, and feeling of isolation—especially at the top—spurs many to leave the workforce early.
Women in leadership communities: a beacon of empowerment
Beyond the challenges of attitudes, perceptions, and discrimination in society and the workplace, women also have to battle their own demons. Some suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’: a lack of self-belief, fear of failure, and an obsession with perfectionism. A 2020 poll of 750 high-performing executive women just below C-level in various industries found 75 per cent had experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.
Women in leadership positions often find themselves to be the only female at the decision-making table, and struggle to get their voice heard. Data reveals that during the average business meeting, 75 per cent of the talking is done by men. This isn’t because men are more competent, and have more to say, but because of a lack of confidence in their own abilities that hold some women back. This is where women in leadership communities can play a critical role in raising each other up, and amplifying each other’s voices.
Women in leadership communities not only provide an opportunity for women to widen their professional networks and connect with like-minded individuals, it offers a safe space for women to share their trials and tribulations both peer-to-peer, and across levels. Women leaders should leverage the communities and support groups within their organisation to share their journeys and not only talk about the strengths and attributes that helped them succeed but also their vulnerabilities, failures, and the obstacles they overcame to seize opportunities and realise their goals.
These communities can be powerful platforms for women to freely exchange ideas and voice their thoughts and experiences on sensitive topics like depression, stress, anxiety, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. Pay gap, for example, is a burning issue in gender inequality and the reason it remains grossly unresolved is because most companies aren’t transparent about pay structures and consider discussing it inappropriate. Speaking openly about pay and sharing successful salary negotiation tips with each other, can empower other women to stand up for what they believe they deserve.
If we want more women to join the workforce and empower them to reach senior roles, we must normalise parenting and work-life balance. The more senior female leaders are open about their own parental responsibilities and talk about it freely in the workplace, the more it becomes the norm. Knowing you are not alone, and have many fears and ambitions in common can help so many escape the feeling of isolation at the workplace.
Inspiring the next generation of women in leadership
You can’t be what you can’t see. Women can feel more empowered if they have awareness of and access to positive role models. Hearing about the success stories of other female leaders, entrepreneurs, and achievers can motivate and inspire the next generation of female leaders and help propel them ahead in their careers.
Senior female leaders in the firm should proactively offer themselves as mentors or executive sponsors for female staff who show aspirations and potential to reach higher positions.
Mentors can provide their sage advice and leverage their experience to provide direction and guidance.
Executive sponsors can use their personal credibility, reputation, and networks to level the playing field and offer connections and introductions that women would not otherwise have access to. They can also help women shift their thinking and consider alternate career paths, positions, projects, and opportunities. Executive sponsors can play a big role in increasing the pipeline of women for leadership roles.
Gender diversity: not nice to have, it’s simply good business
The case for gender diversity at the workplace and in leadership is not just an ethical or social prerogative–it is simply good business with strategic implications for a firm’s bottom line. Research shows that organisations with women at the helm perform 10 times better financially when compared to firms with fewer women in leadership roles. Diverse leadership also solve problems faster. Women in leadership communities can be powerful agents of change and empowerment that can help break the glass ceiling, and enable women and their organisations to unleash their full potential.