Why businesses must look beyond ‘inspirational women’ to shrink the gender divide

Women make up half of the world’s population, and yet, in the workplace, they're still considered the minority. It doesn’t quite add up.

Women make up 49.5% of the world’s population, and yet, in the workplace, they’re still considered and referred to as the minority. It doesn’t quite add up, says Alexandra Anders, EMEA Talent Director at Cornerstone OnDemand.

This is what else she had to say on the importance of looking beyond inspirational women to see the value of women in general…

This disparity between the genders couldn’t be more apparent than recent pay gap revelations. Far from getting smaller, it’s widening, with research showing that 74% of companies have a pay gap favouring men and every sector pays men more on average. So why are there still so many men at the top and so few women?

It can, of course, be inspiring to hear the stories and work of incredible women who, against all the odds, have achieved amazing success, but why do women have to be especially spectacular to be able to go far? What about women who are just good at their job? Why are they overlooked?

Companies need to change not women

We’ve all heard Sheryl Sandberg’s quote about a Hewlett Packard study revealing women think they have to fit all of the required criteria for a job to be able to apply, whereas for men this can be much lower at 60%. Right from the offset, women are being put off applying for a role – and if you don’t have any female applicants, then, of course, you will have to hire a man.

I remember organising an assessment day where we had expected female candidates to attend but on the day none of them showed up – a 100% drop out quota for the women. That made me sit back and think. Why did this happen? What did we do wrong? Many companies need to do the same. Changing a whole mindset or behaviour cannot be achieved overnight but companies can change their approach now.

First things first, businesses need to learn to be mindful of this difference in outlook and attitude. Take a look at your current hiring practices and assess how your potential candidates see your company. When you write up a job spec, for example, what messaging and phrasing do you use? Ask others to take a look at your job adverts – not just someone from outside your department but even better, ask someone from outside your organisation.

What’s the impression you are giving? Of course, you want to be marketing your business to attract great candidates, but this tactic can simultaneously turn those great candidates away. Rather than boasting, you want to be encouraging people to apply, showing the reality of what it’s like to work at your business and that opportunities truly are equal.

Similarly, it can be all too easy for businesses to fall into the trap of hiring candidates that are the same as them. It’s natural to look for these commonalities and for us to seek this subconscious personal validation but push back. If male managers are looking to hire versions of themselves but just twenty years younger, then the same problem will just continue. Far from the belief that this will protect your culture, it will damage it.

Set out the ‘laws’

Having processes and values that count for all mean that everyone should feel like they’re treated equally. For example, a very simple, yet vital, step many businesses overlook is the need to review pay by the role, not the individual. Say you interview a man who would like £100K and a woman who would be happy with half that, you could hire them both at these respective salaries and they would be satisfied. But that causes a problem, as those employees continue to work for your company, that divide in pay also will. Pay should be dictated by the job role and level.

This also shouldn’t stop at recruitment. Businesses can’t sit back and think that’s a job done. In response to the recent pay gap revelations, many of those companies put under the spotlight responded with the assurance that they were increasing diversity across roles with a recruitment drive for female employees. This slightly misses the point. If there is a rush to onboard new female talent at the entry-level, for example, this will only widen the pay gap. Businesses also need to look internally at existing talent, how they promote internal staff and whether they do so fairly.

In the same way that women may be more reluctant to apply for a job, they also may not put up their hand for that promotion. To combat this, just like salary, the criteria and objectives that employees need to achieve to move up the ranks should also be clearly defined and communicated for each role and level. This ensures that it is fair for all and eliminates the potential issue of those who shout the loudest get it.

Open up and welcome differences

The root of the problem may also run a little deeper, needing to address your very culture. Indeed, the principle of the same rules for all should go further than employee development, applying this across your organisation. Yes, there will be local policies and cultural differences, but what does it mean to work at your company?

Here, coaching and training for managers are key, particularly for those who have previously worked in all-male teams. It may be as simple as helping them to realise the reality of the situation. Going to client or customer meetings, there can be a lightbulb moment with managers looking around the room and realising, we have come as a team of men – where are all the women?

It can almost feel a little embarrassing, realising that you’re totally out of touch with the very people you’re trying to sell to. Your client and user base will be made up of women and men, people from all different background and ethnicities, the team working with them should be too. You need those different perspectives – that’s how you can better understand your clients and customers.

It’s true that bringing about these changes may not necessarily be easy, there are those who are against or dislike change. It’s not a question, though, of forcing people or indeed placing blame. Instead, it’s about creating awareness and discussing these situations openly – finding out the reasons why people don’t want there to be change and listening to their thoughts and concerns. You can only create real change if you all move together.

Remember, when we celebrate International Women’s Day,  it’s ‘All Women’s Day’ not just ‘Exceptional Women’s Day’ and it’s time organisations move away from behaviours that stifle diversity.

About the author:

Alexandra Anders is EMEA Talent Director at Cornerstone OnDemand with experience in a diverse range of industries and particular expertise in the implementation of successful change management and performance management tools.

She is passionate about diversity, inclusion, effective training, development and recruitment processes, and highly competent at implementing strategic HRM with a focus on driving performance and retaining talent in the global economy.

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