Gender Inequality

Why overcoming gender barriers in the workplace might boost women's careers

With predominant gender barriers in the workplace, organizations need to speed boost the hiring and retention of women

With predominant gender barriers in the workplace, organizations need to speed boost the hiring and retention of women Image: REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Rosamond Hutt
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Gender Inequality

  • 40% of the global workforce is female. This figure is set to increase by just 3% in the next 10 years, and it may take longer than 30 years to get to 50/50.
  • Gender equality in leadership roles is decades away – organizations need to step up efforts to boost hiring, promotion and retention of women.
  • Automation of jobs will bring new challenges for women and fan certain gender barriers in the workplace.

On the first International Women’s Day gathering in 1911, women were doing most of the world’s unpaid and underpaid work.

Have you read?

Just over a century on, the world has come a long way in the struggles of gender barriers in the workplace – but women still earn less than men and still do 4.4 hours per day of unpaid work on average while men do only 1.7 hours.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 estimates it will take 99.5 years to achieve gender parity at the current rate of progress.

A century is a long time to wait, so, looking to the near future, we asked two experts for their thoughts on what might happen to women’s earnings and career opportunities in the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

Here’s what they told us.

‘Decades from a 50/50 workforce’

Around 40% of the global workforce is female, up from 38% four years earlier. Research by human resources consulting firm Mercer indicates this figure will increase by just 3% in the next 10 years.

With gender barriers in the workplace, it will take a lot of time to achieve a 50/50 workforce
With gender barriers in the workplace, it will take a lot of time to achieve a 50/50 workforce Image: When Women Thrive 2020/Merce

Mercer surveyed more than 1,150 organizations representing over 7 million employees in 54 countries for its When Women Thrive 2020 Global Report.

It revealed some progress in companies hiring, advancing and retaining women.

“The bright spot in our research is that talent flows [rates of hiring, promotion and retention] of men and women are comparable for the first time since 2016, which bodes well for eventually reaching equal overall rates of male/female representation in the global workforce,” says Angela Berg, Partner and Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Mercer.

But Berg points out it will be a long journey to 50/50.

“The reality is it may take much longer than 20 or 30 years,” she says. “Even in the best case scenario, if you do the math, we’re still decades from 50/50 representation.”

Leadership opportunities among gender barriers in the workplace

The share of senior leadership positions held by women has increased 3% since Mercer’s 2016 research. But women still occupy only 23% of executive leadership roles and 29% of senior manager roles globally, Berg says.

“Organizations are keenly focused on developing and promoting women into these leadership roles, so we anticipate seeing an increase in the pipeline,” she says.

“However, the math is intractable. It’s going to take decades before we beat gender barriers in the workplace and given the small numbers of women in leadership positions now, organizations will need to significantly step up their efforts to accelerate progress.

“This includes the possibility of over-indexing on women for these roles, meaning that organizations would substantially increase the hiring, promotion and retention of women over men. This has an array of significant impacts and probably isn’t feasible for most organizations – but underscores the magnitude of the challenge.”

The low percent of women in leadership roles is a collateral of gender barriers in the workplace
The low percent of women in leadership roles is a collateral of gender barriers in the workplace Image: Global Gender Gap Report 2020/World Economic Forum

How automation and AI can add to gender barriers in the workplace

There’s real worry that progress on gender equality may stall or even go into reverse as the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution bring new challenges for women.

“Women disproportionately occupy positions in the workforce that are more vulnerable to job loss due to automation, AI and economic disruption, such as recession,” says Berg.

“As these changes inevitably occur, we will likely see more gender barriers in the workplace to increase the representation of women (and may even see a downturn), unless businesses, industries and countries commit to the necessary focus and investments to ensure women have equal opportunities of education and health, to secure jobs in the changing workforce landscape.”

World Economic Forum research conducted in partnership with LinkedIn shows women are already very under-represented in emerging roles. For example, only 12% of professionals in cloud computing are women.

Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to change their occupations by 2030, and move mostly into higher-skilled roles, according to The Future of Women at Work report by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).

And if they can’t make this transition, these barriers to gender equality in the workplace will widen the wage gap between men and women.

Up to 160 million women may have to change occupations by 2030 to deter gender barriers in the workplace
Up to 160 million women may have to change occupations by 2030 to deter gender barriers in the workplace Image: The Future of Women at Work/McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).

Remove those gender barriers in the workplace

Mekala Krishnan, a lead author of the report and a senior fellow at MGI, says while automation will impact a similar percentage of male (7-24%) and female (8-28%) workers, both men and women will need to be “skilled, mobile and tech-savvy” to cope with the disruption, women face gender barriers in the workplace that will make it harder for them to move into better-paid, more productive work.

“Women often have less time to reskill or search for employment because they spend more time than men on unpaid care work – three times as much globally,” she says.

“They have less flexibility and mobility – for example, women are often in dual-career households which makes it harder to relocate for a job. They may have less access to networks and sponsorship to be able to access new jobs, particularly in some emerging markets where there are also challenges for women to access labour markets due to poor transportation infrastructure, physical safety and legal gender barriers in the workplace; and they have lower access to digital technology and participation in STEM fields than men.”

She adds: “At first glance, it looks like men and women are running the same race into the age of automation, but while the distance may be similar, women are running with a weight around each ankle.

“If we invest in removing those weights, women will not only achieve greater economic success for themselves, but also help strengthen businesses and economies.”

So how can we level the playing field?

“Policy-makers and businesses need to step up interventions, targeted at women, to overcome these gender barriers in the workplace,” Krishnan says.

“Top priorities include more investment in training and transitional support; more provision of childcare and safe and affordable transportation; addressing stereotypes about occupations; boosting women’s access to mobile internet and digital skills in emerging economies; and supporting women in STEM professions and entrepreneurship.”

Looking at the share of women in the workforce and in leadership roles doesn’t give us the full picture, according to Berg.

“To date, virtually all focus on gender equality has been around representation, or the number of women in the workforce and at what levels. That’s the diversity part of the story and organizations are addressing it through the lens of hiring, promotion and retention,” she says.

“The other part of the story is inclusion or experience, and that is perhaps where there is the greatest opportunity for advancing women in the future and overcoming gender barriers in the workplace.

“We envision a future where women can access the right programmes and resources to ensure that they thrive physically, emotionally and financially, which will enable them to further thrive in their careers.

“Today’s average organization hasn’t fully recognized that women have unique needs as well as challenges, such as caregiving responsibilities, and are not tailoring programmes to help address those needs. Those organizations that do the best job of anticipating these needs will be in a much more competitive position to attract and retain the best talent. And not just women – all talent.”

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