Endless Cycle

By Erika Harrington

When it comes to wage gaps, and the success of professional women, it’s easy to play the blame game. “It’s hyper-masculinity in the business world that makes work a toxic environment for women.” “It’s that women choose to have children and stay home with the family.” “Men are threatened by strong women.” “Women’s hormones make them too emotional to make big decisions.”

Enough.

The fact of the matter is that no one’s to blame, and yet we’re all to blame. Confused? Read on.

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There are decades worth of elaborate research on the presence of (and lack thereof) women in professional executive positions. And with all this research comes a Frito-Lay’s Variety pack of conclusions on who’s at fault for the issue. Trying to get through this chaos of explanations and figure out what’s really going on would be a major headache. Lucky for us, Ellen Ernst Kossek, Rong Su, Lusi Wu bore the burden for us. They basically went through the many (and I mean many) studies that have been done on the topic and pulled out some themes so the rest of us can get the overview.

“However, simply because women spend more energy on their families than men, this doesn’t mean that women want to  spend more energy on their families than their job.”

They found that here are many different factors that keep women from executive suites and we can all do a little more to make sure representation improves in board rooms.

Factors that keep top leadership positions from being equal are things like individual decisions of women, organizational climates, and role expectations. While our culture expects more of  women when it comes to home responsibilities and family, women also tend to opt out of work to spend more time with children than men. However, simply because women spend more energy on their families than men, this doesn’t mean that women want to  spend more energy on their families than their job.

This is why the climate of organizations also contributes to gender inequalities. The research indicates that many employers and organizations don’t offer helpful work-life balance resources. Child care options that promote flexibility and better paid leave will help women to meet the professional goals that are important to them. It also crucial to remember that work-life balance isn’t a women’s issue, and describing it as one perpetuates stereotypes. The professional world needs to make sure work-life balance resources are offered to men and known about by men. This will promote a culture in which men share home responsibilities and are given the chance to spend the time with their families that they may have not been able to enjoy before.

Employers need to be more conscious of their practices that are making it difficult for women to thrive. This can be done using anonymous surveys, hiring an organizational change specialist, hosting a focus group, and more—anything that encourages employees to report what they’d actually need to succeed with their organization.

Organizations can also help be more inclusive by making the workplace an environment that supports female identities. Kossek, Su, and Wu found that research indicates women tend to choose fields that allow them to work with people instead of fields that force them to compete against people. Instead of these fields arguing that women should adapt to competitive natures of the job, they should be more open to potential benefits of collaboration in the field—because finding life-saving cures in the STEM field or growing a multi-million corporation doesn’t have to have a ‘Hunger Games’-esque climate.

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Employers also need to adjust what they define as commitment to work. Research again suggest that long hours and face-to-face work are valued over flexibility and telecommuting. But the latter allows employees to have better work-life balance and should be seen as just as hard working. To be fair, we could chalk this up to old assumptions about the way things “ought to be”—but these old assumptions can often be gendered. We all—men and women—need to recognize that we buy into these assumptions, we uphold stereotypes and create bias. Acknowledge it and fight any knee-jerk reactions to perpetuate it.

Okay, so that may have seemed like a long “brief” overview. I warned you that looking at the many causes of the lack of women at the top was going to be tough. But what isn’t tough is making the decision to address these problems. Taking the simple steps mentioned before can make all the difference.

Addressing all the factors of this issue can be messy but doing it is the only way to clean up the gender gap. We are all capable of taking at least minor steps to address bias in the boardroom, and it starts with you.

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