The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what it takes to make more progress toward gender equality in the workplace. Spoiler: they are men.
For too long, the conversation about gender in the workplace has focused on telling women how to navigate a landscape that adversely affects them. That's all well and good, and has certainly boosted the careers of some individual women. But this approach, as it puts energy into "improving" women, leaves intact the factors that make such advice necessary in the first place.
The pandemic has shown how inadequate it is to focus on repairing women; you can't hack your productivity or boost your confidence out of a system that's piled up against you. To change the status quo, men – whose actions at work and at home affect the women around them every day – must do more than just endorse the idea of gender equality.
For example, during the pandemic, professional women with children faced something much more difficult than the glass ceiling – in fact, they hit a brick wall that halted their careers. Society expected women to bear the lion's share of the massive care for working parents. And they did. Mothers reduced their working hours exponentially more than dads, and many of them threw in the towel. Those who have stuck to their jobs are Worried that they are one missed Zoom call and not yet labeled a bad performer or, worse, laid off
Decades after the implementation of laws and policies that mean a level playing field, the current crisis has exposed – and exacerbated – the obstacles that continue to block women's careers. We surveyed and interviewed hundreds of working professionals across all career stages to better understand why gender inequality persists. Our data makes two things clear: first, women, from recent graduates to senior executives, still face prejudices and limitations that hinder or hinder their progress, and second, men are the key to transforming these conditions. Research has shown that when men advocate for gender equality, their efforts are taken more seriously. We must mobilize men to use their power to break down barriers that leave women's aspirations unfulfilled and potential.
What does it mean for men to participate fully in the fight for gender equality in the workplace? Men, keep reading. Here are six actions that will make a difference to the women around you:
1. Reject the idea that women don't want to be on the leadership track: Research has found that most women who leave the professional workforce do not voluntarily opt out after having children, but instead departure frustrated that their careers are derailed by managers and companies that mothers consider less valuable than other employees. Don't protect women on your team by not offering them tough assignments or high-profile projects. Instead, give them meaningful opportunities to stretch, grow, and shine, and let them decide how high they want to aim.
2. Spend time maintaining your relationships with female colleagues: The same myths about women's lack of commitment to work that reduce their development opportunities also discourage men from taking up mentorship, sponsorships, and networking with them. A few of our own past research On Financial Services, found that men did not consider women at their companies to be worth investing their time in, making it difficult for women to access information and insights needed to do their jobs. Recognize that your female colleagues are there to add value, just like you. You may even benefit from knowing them better – our research found that female analysts developed unique skills that men can learn from.
3. Take your full allotment of paternity leave: And if you're in a leadership position, expect the men on your team to do the same. Gender equality parental leave policy means little if it only exists on paper. A recent report from New America found that when men are given the opportunity to be a caregiver, they start to invest more in care and share the burden more equally with their partners, easing the pressure on working mothers.
4. Speak your mind if you hear any problematic comments: In a 2019 studywomen were pessimistic about the extent to which men at work were willing to confront other men with biased beliefs. Still, men who proclaim sexism can have a huge impact on their job – because men aren't seen as acting in self-interest when advocating for equality, their words say have a greater weightEvery time you speak out, you shift the culture to equality.
5. Use your strength to fix a broken process, even if you are not in charge of it: Men are sometimes hesitant to move beyond just endorsing the idea of gender equality because they aren't sure it's their place to do more than that. But passive support means missed opportunities. For our upcoming book, we spoke to a young finance professional who was dismayed to see that there were no women on a list of 50 candidates selected for interviews at his company. When he received little response from the HR department, he and another colleague took it upon themselves to recruit women into the pool. Had he stopped expressing dismay, the list would have remained completely male.
6. If you are a leader, go bigger: Make structural changes. Because of the inequality between men and women, men are the people most likely to hold formal authority. CEOs and other senior leaders have the ability to make systemic changes in all aspects of talent management, from hiring to promotion to retention. Educate yourself about the practices that influence interviewing, performance appraisal, and development, and update your organization accordingly. Collect data on progress and promotion and research differences. Hold your managers accountable for implementing these practices and strive for continuous improvement – just as you would for any other business priority.
Women's activism and advocacy have resulted in massive strides toward gender equality in the workplace – the results of the # MeToo movement are just the most recent example. But there is still work to be done and it is time for men to adjust.
Colleen Ammerman is the director of Harvard Business School's Gender Initiative. Boris Groysberg is Richard P. Chapman professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a faculty-affiliated company of the Gender Initiative. They are co-authors of the prospective Glass Half Broken: Breaking Down the Barriers That Still Keep Women at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, April 13, 2021)
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