Never ending battle: gender diversity

“This is a critical moment for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.” So says McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 research, and while the research is based in the US, the findings reflect a global concern that the disruption caused by Covid-19 could put back years of hard-won progress in the battle for gender diversity.

Representation of women has improved
In recent years there has been an increasing awareness around diversity and the representation of women in the workplace, as well as in wider society. News and social media have covered how the female leaders of the world have seemingly managed the Covid-19 crisis better than many other countries’ male leaders. Then there’s Kamala Harris’ election campaign and election night speech which have been applauded by millions. Many award speeches in 2019-2020 from the Academy Awards (where there were no female director nominees) to the Billboard Music Awards also focused on women’s rights, challenges and empowerment.

There is finally a significant interest and investment in Hollywood for movies and TV shows where the main character is female. But there is work to do. Academy Award winner actor Reese Witherspoon tells that she had to start her own production company to be able to make and star in films where the main character is a woman because there were so little opportunity and interest in the market. The productions she has since been involved in, have not only brought great commercial success but have also helped to create deep awareness in society.

Take ‘The Morning Show’, which – just like its big screen film equivalent Bombshell – told us the sexism story behind the TV screen in the media industry. Another Witherspoon production, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ has made us think about the societal pressure and the judgements that women face when it comes to their identity, career and mothering. Many other productions continue to follow this route, highlighting the often-unconscious bias when it comes to gender.

Big picture diversity agenda
In the workplace, companies are also actively increasing their activities on gender bias practices as part of a big picture diversity agenda, but the McKinsey research reveals that the progress made and the effort put in is under risk because of the pandemic. The findings reveal that during the pandemic, women and especially mothers are more negatively affected than men and fathers in the workplace.

Take women in senior leadership positions: they are more likely than men at the same level to feel as though they are “always on…available for work at all hours of the day.” Women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure. So when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement.

Senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be ‘onlys’; the only, or one of the only women in the room at work. That comes with its own challenges: women who are ‘onlys’ are more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience micro-aggressions, including demands to provide additional evidence of their competence.

A lone voice
Being the only woman at a decision table is something female leaders are used to but it is important to acknowledge the pressure it brings and the relief it gives when other women join. Christine Lagarde – who always looks very comfortable and confident in her roles – celebrates in her recent New York Times article that there is now one more woman in the Governance Council of the European Central Bank, saying: “Thank goodness there are two of us now. And I can take photos like the one I took at a retreat that we had exactly a year ago in November. And at the time there was not even two women on the board. It was just me and 24 men.”

It is a good thing having female leaders at senior levels for companies. For years many studies have shown that the companies that have more women at the leadership roles, are significantly more likely to outperform their peers. We also know that senior-level women have a positive impact on a company’s culture; they embrace employee-friendly policies and programs that champion racial and gender diversity, and they mentor and sponsor other women. But despite the positives, there is still a broken rung on the ladder which holds women back from being promoted to mid-level management, and a glass ceiling which prevents senior level women from moving to the top.

Protect the hard-won gains
McKinsey states that now is a pivotal moment. Companies have shown a growing commitment to gender diversity but their commitment is more important than ever right now. If companies are bold and rise to the moment, they can protect the gains in gender diversity and lay the foundation for a better workplace long after Covid-19 is put behind us.

But as coaches our job is to ask the big questions, so my big question here is “why?” Why can’t companies progress their gender diversity despite all the benefits? Why is it so hard to come up with gender-smart strategies? Why is it so hard to set clear goals on the issue, monitor and assess the effort? Why is it so hard to provide support not only to women but also to men to achieve their organisations’ goals regarding diversity, and also to be more aware of the challenges and the solutions?

Tackle the unconscious bias
Only when we can talk about the unspoken reasons behind the issue and bring the underlying unconscious bias to conscious awareness, will we be able talk about how we can deal with the gender diversity issue in stronger and more effective ways. It is beholden on all of us to keep reading, writing and talking about this topic until the day we no longer need to.