Today is International Women's Day, a day when we celebrate women's role in society and celebrate the economic, political and social achievements women have gained over the past 100-plus years.
The initial push for recognition of women's contribution to the world of work started at the turn of the century when industrialization created a booming economy. At this time, the role of women in the world of work was discounted and grossly undervalued. Men, on the other hand, ruled both government and business and there was nary a woman in sight. So, where do we stand today?
According to Catalyst Canada's news release in June, 2013, women make up 50.4 per cent of Canada's total population, 82 per cent of single-parent families and received approximately 60 per cent of all university degrees, diplomas or certificates. In addition, 62.3 per cent of women age 15 and older were working, while women also made up 67.3 per cent of the part-time workforce.
With respect to the management ranks in organizations, Catalyst reported that in 2013 women comprised only 34.6 per cent of management occupations while only 33.1 per cent of women worked at the senior management level. Worse yet are the statistics for corporate boards. For instance, it was reported in 2011 that women held only 14.5 per cent of corporate board seats. As can be surmised from these trends, it is not surprising to learn that women continue to earn an average of 71.4 per cent of men's earnings.
Over the years, there have been many studies and proposed rationale for the discrepancies between men and women in the workplace. Things such as child bearing, maternity leave and child care have traditionally been perceived to prevent women from getting ahead. On the other hand, recent research confirmed the theory that the issue of inequity is much more related to the deeply ingrained, cognitive and cultural biases in favour of men.
For instance, a 2007 study at Cornell University involved the assessment of a set of resumés that were identical in skills and experience but alternatively used male/female names. The study demonstrated that in spite of the fact there was equitable parental leave in their study organization, men who had children were perceived as more favourable candidates that women with children. While the resumés were identical, the study suggests that biased attitudes played a key role in the hiring decision. This then represents the type of subtle, cultural favouritism that creates the systemic discrimination against women that continues today.
Personally, I don't have a magic wand to reduce this societal bias on my own, but I also find I'm not as upset about the situation as when I was a young professional. That's because I do see some progress. There are indeed societal changes, I believe, that will eventually lead us to equality. For instance, up until recently, six Canadian provinces were led by women premiers. More and more women are entering politics and taking on roles in governance and leadership. More and more women are moving into senior management positions. Women are also gaining ground through education, and as well, more and more are entering the hard-core professions of science, engineering, technology, accounting and law.
At the same time, I see the male population taking on more of a family orientation. They no longer want to be so tied to work they neglect their spouse and families. They want more of a balanced life. Women are also resisting the temptation to dedicate their life to the tough climb up a corporate ladder. Organizations, on the other hand, are responding to this change in attitude by creating life/work balance policies, flexible work schedules and focusing more attention on promoting women within their organizations. In addition, organizations are creating developmental opportunities and mentoring programs for women.
Yet, there are still many miles to go toward the equality of men and women in the workplace. However, each woman can positively contribute to this journey toward equality. Here are five strategies for you to consider:
Understand and work the system - every organization has a system in place that helps to get things done. Take time to understand these systems and how they work. Determine the different political nuances, identify the various influencers, and develop alliances in order to push your ideas forward. Always propose new ideas with a full background that demonstrates you have thought through all the issues and potential solutions to the issue you are raising.
Ensure a positive attitude - change -- especially societal change -- takes time. You cannot do it alone. But keep a positive attitude, be consistent and stay focused, while at the same time, avoid becoming a "one-trick pony." Chip away at your organizational goals by proposing solutions instead of continually pointing out the problems. Creating internal working groups that spread the work around enhances the number of ideas and solutions being discussed and creates alliances for moving your ideas forward.
Learn to let go - in spite of the fact you may have a strong critique regarding an issue of equality and are able to propose a worthy solution, the timing to present your ideas may not be just right. Every organization has a number of issues they are dealing with and you need to pick a time when people will pay attention. In some cases, a crisis may have occurred that allows you a prime opportunity to raise your issue. Failing to pay attention to timeliness may see your issue get buried and discounted.
Work behind the scenes - fighting for a spot at a senior leadership level may not be the answer to your equity issues. In fact, you might gain more influence while working in other parts of the organization where you can mobilize others for change. Develop a reputation for facilitating positive change, take on leadership opportunities and volunteer to tackle hard problems. Build trust amongst others and they will then listen to you.
Compromise and collaborate - moving toward equality in the workplace is also all about give and take. It's an approach that shows an understanding that each party must benefit for change to take place. Work toward shared goals and build consensus for success.
I would be the first to admit, there is still plenty of work to be done before we can say there is full equity between men and women in society and in our workplaces. However, if we focus on the many positive changes that have now occurred and work in collaboration with others to initiate more change, I am confident we'll see an increase of women in executive leadership, increased pay for women and more respect for family responsibilities.
-- source: Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in the Labour Force in Canada. New York: Catalyst, 2013; Gender Inequality in the Workplace: What Data Analytics Says, Business Week, January 30, 2014.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org