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Women in the Workplace: Can the Glass Ceiling Be Broken?

Dec11
In 1984, a New York Times article examined the changing face of gender and employment in the United States and asked what was on the minds of many men: "Are the gains being made by women in the workplace coming at the expense of men?"

The conclusion? A resounding yes.  And looking back today, one would expect that, by now, the inequalities of the pre-Reagan years would be all but eliminated.

But nearly 30 years later, women still find themselves at a disadvantage when competing with their male counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn only 79 percent of what men are paid. Only four percent of CEOs running Fortune 500 companies are women. Mothers are less likely to be hired and receive much lower starting salaries than men, and are still tasked with doing most of the unpaid work that goes into caring for loved ones – even while working their own career.

The good news? While the glass ceiling hasn’t yet broken – it has cracked, with women gaining momentum in fields that were once male-dominated. The journey to succeed, however, is anything but easy for women. As Margie Warrell argues, women frequently trap themselves in a glass cage, “held together by the misgivings we have about [self-perceived abilities] to succeed and handle the demands of leadership without sacrificing our other aspirations outside the workplace.”

This isn’t just a social issue. It’s a business issue. If nearly half your workforce doesn’t have the same chance to succeed as the other, it can damage morale, hurt productivity and impact your bottom line. Equality is a good business decision. But it’s more than just seminars and HR trainings. It’s real impact on your day-to-day. Here are four ways that organizations can build more equitable workplaces:

1. Think about employee needs

More and more, employees are considering job perks when making an employment decision, and while telecommuting and gourmet chefs are great, many women and families find an on-site child care center invaluable. It’s a great way to reduce employee stress at home, which translated in the workplace. No wonder nearly a third of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For offer onsite child care.

2. Encourage risk-taking

People are capable of achieving more than they realize. The problem is that some women can set their sights too low, aiming for what they perceive to be low-hanging fruit.

Organizations can help women flourish as leaders by encouraging professional risk taking from their female employees. If you manage a team, be sure that you’re taking a chance on new project proposals from your team members. If everybody feels comfortable enough to make a well-meaning mistake, the quantity – and quality – of the good ideas coming out of your team will dramatically increase.

3. Make it more than just lip service

Think you can foster female-friendly culture just with videos, packets from HR and motivational speakers extolling the virtues of equality? Think again. Building a culture is more than just lip service. Take motivational speakers. After they leave, that inspiration means nothing unless there’s something solid behind it, explained Poornima Vijayashanker, an entrepreneur and consultant who helps businesses build female-friendly tech cultures.

“In the short term you’ll see a little spike in interest, and people will pat your company on the back for being female friendly,” she said. “However, if you don’t actually implement a support structure in place that has clear performance review criteria, mentorship, role models, and a flexible work environment then you can and should expect turnover.”

To build a female-friendly culture, organizations need a clear plan for advancement. One key to retaining top talent is to provide systematic opportunities for employees to cultivate their leadership skills.

“The key to doing that is to have a supportive system, otherwise people will just leave, be disinterested in advancing, or worse yet, not even know how to advance themselves,” Vijayashanker said.

4. Encourage mentorship

According to one Harvard Business Review study, high-performing women are often lacking the sponsorship they need to reach the top. These mentors will advocate for them at the C-suite, share advice, and provide direct guidance. For mentorship programs to prove successful, organizations need to provide a safe, supportive, and stigma-free environment.

Moving on

Here’s a little secret about these four methods – they can be completely gender-blind. Are you fostering a culture that encourages risk and provides a clear path for advancement for all? Do people have the tools they need to succeed? Shattering the glass ceiling will prove to be a lot easier when organizations have the right structure for their high-performing women – and men – to succeed.

(editor’s note – after this article went to print, another crack appeared in the glass ceiling when Mary Barra was named as the next CEO of General Motors, becoming the first woman to lead a major auto manufacturer.)