Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

For women to advance at work, we need to break the mould

When it comes to women's participation in the workplace, ‘success’ is defined within the parameters of a system built for and by men

When it comes to women's participation in the workplace, ‘success’ is defined within the parameters of a system built for and by men Image: Karolina Grabowska for Unsplash

Roianne Nedd
Global Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, Oliver Wyman
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Women were hit harder on every level during the pandemic, and employers need to learn lessons from that experience.
  • Instead of training women to fit into workplaces designed for men, we need to fundamentally rethink the world of work.
  • Women and minorities should not be pitted against one another for the same board positions, but rather more places should be created on boards.

The pandemic threw into question like never before the idea that the world is making progress towards gender equality. Women were hit harder on every level, their livelihoods disproportionately impacted, and their caring responsibilities multiplied. Instead of corporations resuming business as usual in the wake of COVID, they should recognise that there are invaluable lessons that must be learnt from the last two years.

When it comes to female participation in the workplace, ‘success’ is defined within the parameters of a system built for and by men. Women’s achievements are judged against a background of outdated cultural values and societal constructs, and the characteristics that we typically associate with effective leadership endorse stereotypically masculine attributes like assertiveness, ambition, and competitiveness. This is exemplified by the many ‘women in leadership’ training courses that teach women to show these traits and adapt to succeed. But why should women be fighting for space and trying to fit into a system that is not designed to meet our needs?

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Women need recognition and support for the specific roadblocks and challenges they face. As the pandemic exposed, one of the major hurdles for women is navigating caring responsibilities. Women make up the majority of primary caregivers and as such are disproportionately affected by extended periods of time away from the workplace for family commitments. Despite progress in this area, this can still make it significantly harder for women to advance in workplaces, especially in those that reward employees who can prioritise their work and extend their hours if required.

Fortunately, while flexible work arrangements were once seen as an employee benefit, companies now recognise them as an effective tool to attract top talent, reduce turnover, and increase productivity. Leaders should continue to switch their focus to productivity and results, rather than the time an employee spends at their desk. Women should be judged solely on the quality of work; part-time hours or families should not hinder their success or diminish their qualifications.

Organisations need to recognise that there are many ways to exist as a woman. Race, sexuality, and the decision to have a family, all affect experiences in the workplace. For example, women of colour often work twice as hard for half as much, while simultaneously dealing with some of workplaces’ most entrenched challenges that intersect race, gender and culture. There is no one-size-fits-all policy that will benefit every woman, everywhere. Women are not a homogenous group, and thus should not be treated as such. Greater autonomy should be granted to give women the agency to determine what best serves them at work, and diversity initiatives should be designed by listening to the specific groups they’re championing.

Despite some progress, it is still significantly harder for women to advance in workplaces
Despite some progress, it is still significantly harder for women to advance in workplaces Image: The Economist

Organisations should also look at work with a more modular lens, splitting roles into their individual components instead of trying to fulfil a checklist of attributes for each position. For example, according to the OECD, women have particularly strong problem-solving skills and so could be invaluable assets to a fintech company, even if they don’t have the technical background traditionally required. At present, women make up around 30% of the fintech workforce and only 17% of its leadership. In fragmenting roles into specific modules and hiring experts in each of those, women can valuably contribute and progress to the upper echelons of organisations in this sector and others, without needing to fulfil a specification of typically male traits.

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Taking a more flexible approach towards skills and recruitment will give way to more portfolio-style careers, too, offering a more comprehensive range of training, more control over career trajectory, and greater flexibility. Not only will this benefit all employees, but crucially it will also allow for more positions and therefore more seats at the table. Competing for limited positions does not lend itself to meritocracy; it pits minorities against one another. The ‘one in one out’ structure at board level penalises women and minority groups, and we need to replace it with a system that has more places on each board.

We need to construct a new system that truly levels the playing field for women, embedding the flexibility women need to thrive both in work and at home. Women have for too long been held solely responsible for creating the change in the workplace that allows them to progress. We will build a better future by taking collective responsibility for writing a new set of guidelines that welcomes diverse voices and lived experiences, instead of insisting everyone squeezes into the restrictive mould of traditional male success.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of Work
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