135 years before we reach gender equality; why pre-existing gender inequality in business has been exacerbated by the pandemic

Article by Sharon Peake, founder and CEO at Shape Talent.

business inequality, woman and man climbing the career ladder, gender inequalityThere have been so many damaging ripples from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the world of business, one of the most devastating long-term impacts has been on gender equality – where we have seen recent momentum regress significantly. So much so in fact, it is now estimated that the time it will take to close the gender gap has widened from an already depressing 99 years in 2020 to an alarming 135 years this year (2021).

The frustrating truth is that Covid-19 has exacerbated the barriers that already existed to women’s progression in business. While we may all be desensitised to the issue of gender equality with all the communications around diversity, and now ESG, there is no denying that inclusion and gender balance continue to be major issues for business and society generally.

More than a ‘nice to have’

In addition to the moral and ethical imperative that should be felt by all progressive leaders, the benefits of gender equality for businesses are huge. Curtin Business School reports that an increase of 10 per cent or more in women’s representation in key executive roles directly leads to a 6.6 per cent increase in market value. Yet, despite the many benefits, it is currently going to take until the year 2156 to achieve equal representation of men and women in leadership.

Before we can solve any gender equality issue, we need to first understand the root causes. And we have done just that by analysing over 70 studies reporting the latest authoritative research for our white paper entitled; Three Barriers to Women’s Progression and What Organisations Can Do. The barriers can be broadly grouped into: Societal, Organisational and Personal.

Societal pressures against women in leadership

These barriers result from the subtle and often unspoken cultural cues and messages that reinforce the ways that men and women ‘ought’ to think, behave and feel. More than ever before, mothers face the very real double burden of paid and unpaid work, and all women still face the weight of gender stereotypes, penalising us when we act in ways deemed to be ‘masculine’, such as taking leadership roles. Then there are women in the ‘sandwich generation’ who care for both aging parents and dependent children – perhaps while also battling menopause.

Organisational factors limiting women’s breakthrough

Though many dismiss this area, citing equal pay legislation and the fact that so many more women are in business, the reality is only around 20% of executive roles, and only around 8% of CEO roles are held by women across Europe. The huge hurdles encountered in the workplace are a combination of systemic obstacles, cultures and norms that disadvantage women. Women face everyday sexism, microaggressions and bias and many women also struggle to access the right networks or get sponsorship from powerful leaders that men are 25% more likely to receive. Others look at the ‘always on’ culture and think ‘I just can’t do that and still be a good mum/carer/friend’.

Personal obstacles in women’s development

Some of the most unseen and insidious barriers are those on the inside. The reality is, sometimes women hold themselves back. Some women don’t feel able to put themselves forward for opportunities until they are “ready”, and thereby risk missing out on the visible, high-profile assignments that are often the building blocks for career progression. Others prefer not to engage with the inevitable politics of the workplace, don’t push to be heard in meetings, or try to replicate ‘male’ models of leadership which just aren’t authentic. Others struggle to negotiate an equitable division of household responsibilities with their spouses, with the resultant double burden limiting the time available for professional progression.

The impact of intersectionality

Some also have to contend with additional layers of bias and barriers. Women of colour. Women in the LGBTQI+ community. Women with a disability. Women with any combination of ‘minority’ characteristics. For these women the barriers are cumulative. And they are oppressive.

What organisations can do to accelerate gender equality in business and beyond

All these invisible pressures need to be acknowledged by organisations, and the leaders within them, as a prerequisite to being able to address them.

The barriers to women’s progression in leadership are not insurmountable, and organisations that are serious about gender equality can, and indeed are, making great strides. The more leading organisations that focus in on the real issues, create a climate for change and undertake programmes that deliver sustainable results, the more we will collectively breakdown the three barriers and accelerate gender equality.

Here are eight guiding principles organised into questions that company leaders can ask themselves to counteract these barriers, and ensure the step change needed for a more unified and engaged workforce:

  1. Link inclusion and diversity to business strategy

As a leader, ask yourself: Are our equity, diversity and inclusion efforts inextricably linked to our business strategy? Is there a clear line of sight between our overall purpose and business priorities and what we are trying to achieve with our diversity programme? Think productivity, customer retention, time to market, risk management and other key business performance measures.

  1. Set the tone from the top

As a leader, ask yourself: Are my actions and behaviours signalling the importance I place on gender equality? If we look at the decisions and outputs of the leadership team recently, do they reflect our diversity messages? Are we individually and collectively walking the talk?

  1. Make inclusion part of cultural change programme

As a leader, ask yourself: Are our processes, systems and metrics geared towards gender equality, diversity and inclusion? And are our front-line leaders equipped with the skills and motivation to lead inclusively?

  1. Take an evidence-based approach

As a leader, ask yourself: Do we have a good handle on the barriers to women’s progression? Are there particular hurdles borne out of our industry, heritage, or culture? What is the data telling us? What are our women actually experiencing? Are we basing our approaches on what has been proven to work? 

  1. Engage men

As a leader, ask yourself: Have we done enough to bring our male colleagues on the gender equality journey? Do they understand and appreciate the barriers? Have we helped them internalise the many positive roles they can play accelerating equality? Are our diversity efforts inclusive of all, and not alienating anyone?

  1. Build and accelerate the pipeline

As a leader, ask yourself: Are we attracting a gender balanced intake of graduates, or is our industry struggling to attract women? How might we take a long-term view and raise awareness of our industry at secondary and tertiary school level, to encourage more women graduates? Are our recruitment, career development, appraisal and reward practices designed to accelerate gender equality?

  1. Enable a level playing field

As a leader, ask yourself: What positive actions can we take to give under-represented groups an equal opportunity here? Are there acceleration programmes or targeted recruitment campaigns we could undertake?

  1. Narrow the focus

As a leader, ask yourself: What are the two or three things we could do really well which would have the biggest impact on gender equity, diversity and inclusion? How might these priorities need to differ in the various geographies in which we operate?

As the corporate world continues to evolve from adding value for shareholders to playing an even more purposeful role in creating value for a broader range of stakeholders, we really believe that organisations can be a powerful force for equality. When we recognise and address the invisible barriers to women’s progress in business, our actions reverberate in our communities and in society generally. These actions accelerate gender equality and create a better world for our daughters and their daughters too.

About the author

Sharon PeakeSharon Peake is founder and CEO at Shape Talent. Sharon is an experienced diversity and talent management leader with over 20 years’ experience in global businesses, leading teams of 100+ employees. She is also a registered psychologist and certified coach. Prior to founding Shape Talent in 2017, she held senior leadership roles in two FTSE20 business.

Born in Australia, Sharon has lived and worked in Australia and the UK, and her roles have given her experience working across 6 continents, delivering work in locations as diverse as Colombia, Romania, India, Uganda, New York, and Hong Kong. Her clients come from sectors as diverse as telecoms, consumer goods, manufacturing, publishing, medical devices, and financial services.

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