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We need to stop fixing women and start fixing workplaces

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D o leaders know the barriers women face because of gender inequality at work? As part of my PhD research, I interviewed 72 employees at different levels in two organizations to find out.

In every interview I asked leaders the same questions:

  • Why are there so few women leaders in your organization?
  • What barriers do you think women encounter trying to advance at work?

Male leaders all generally responded in the same way. They told me that their workplaces were a meritocracy because everyone was treated in the same way. There were no gender differences and so women don’t face any additional barriers to advancement.

Watch: Michelle King delivers a TED Talk about Gender Denial
It's Not You, It's Your Workplace | Michelle Penelope King | TEDxChelseaPark
However, the women I talked to outlined barriers they have experienced throughout their careers, including difficulties associated with accessing promotions, high profile assignments, development opportunities, and informal networks. Men did not encounter the same challenges.

Men still maintained that employees have an equal opportunity to get ahead, regardless of gender. The impact that gender inequality has on women’s careers was simply denied. This is gender denial.
We can’t remove barriers that hold women back at work if we don’t acknowledge they exist.
As a result, women in both these organizations felt as though they had to overcome the barriers to their advancement by outperforming their male colleagues, working harder and continually engaging in self-development. These strategies may help women navigate workplaces, but they do nothing to address systemic inequality.

We need to stop fixing women and start fixing workplaces.

But, we can’t remove barriers that hold women back at work if we don’t acknowledge they exist—and it’s the responsibility of all leaders to do both. Organizations that recognize and value difference enable employees to use their diverse perspectives and talents to thrive at work.

This not only benefits workers—it ensures companies can compete effectively. Technological disruptions are forcing companies to continuously innovate. An Accenture survey found employees are six times more likely to have an innovative mindset in workplaces with more equal cultures.
Equality is not about men. It’s also not about women. It’s an invitation for leaders to lead.
Creating a culture free of gender bias starts with leaders. Leaders who hold men and women to different standards create barriers to all employees’ success. This not only costs women, but it also limits men’s fulfillment and success at work. For example, men who want to reduce their hours for family reasons are often penalized. They receive a wage penalty of 26.4 percent, versus 23.2 percent for women, after controlling for the usual factors that affect wages.

Creating a culture of equality is a critical step toward ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to advance professionally and address family needs. The Accenture survey also found that, in cultures of equality, women are four times more likely and men are twice as likely to rise to senior leadership positions. Disrupting gender denial is the how leaders can begin to create environments that help everyone succeed more.

Inequality is created and experienced in day-to-day moments that each of us has the potential to reinforce or disrupt. Equality is not about men. It’s also not about women. It’s an invitation for leaders to lead.

Posted: October 10, 2019
Edition: Disrupt

The ideas and views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Evoke or Melinda Gates.