As a society we have come a long way from a time when men were the sole income earners and women needed permission from their husbands to even open a bank account.
Things have drastically changed since then. Now we have dual income households and an understanding of the importance of women to be financially independent.
These days affirmative action and programs to address gender bias in the workplace are myriad, but aren’t necessarily effective beyond paying lip service to the idea of equality.
The case for making workplaces more female-friendly and employing more women in the first place is strong. Not only does it effectively double the pool of available talent, having more women on board also improves a company’s performance. Research shows Fortune 500 companies with more women on boards enjoy higher sales and profits. In Australia, the presence of more women could boost economic growth by $60 billion over the next 20 years.
According to the Centre for Creative Leadership’s study What Women Want, having more women makes a company a better place to work for all, reducing the likelihood of burnout while increasing job satisfaction, organisational loyalty and a sense of meaning.
Women are already significantly underrepresented in positions of power in companies, but they’re demanding more from their workplaces and willing to walk away in higher numbers than men to get a better deal. Amid a “Great Breakup” of talented women leaving companies in droves to find more opportunities elsewhere, companies need to do a little soul-searching to see if they’re doing enough to nurture the next generation of female leaders.
Beyond pink balloons and stultifying corporate events every International Women’s Day, how can businesses address the ongoing barriers holding women back in the workplace?
The top item on the wish list is workplace flexibility. Post pandemic, many workers are demanding more flexibility from their employers in the form of alternative working hours and more options to work remotely. Women who are often doing the heavy lifting in parenting will be looking for non-conventional work hours to assist with school drop offs and pick up before catching up on work after hours.
On this note, the work week ought to be changed to include weekends and meeting times should be rotated instead of being held at 7am as standard practice. Some may choose to work a Sunday instead of a Wednesday, some may find a four day work week is more productive than five. Afternoon meetings open up the mornings for important and urgent work. Having these options open will help women juggle family appointments during the week and get more done at work with minimal stress.
In-house childcare is another way to ensure businesses attract and retain valuable female employees if they have or decide to have children. For parents, childcare availability and affordability are critical factors in deciding what kind of work they want to do, where to work and how often they should work. Good quality and convenient childcare could make the difference between choosing to work full time and part time. Having an on-site childcare facility would transform businesses into an employer of choice.
Then there are the single professional women who may perceive their workplaces as potential traps where they are expected to take on the extra load from their colleagues with children. They may nevertheless also have caring responsibilities and extracurricular commitments outside of work, and should be afforded the same level of flexibility to avoid resentment and conflict in the workplace.
As an underrepresented cohort, many women have internalised the need to prove themselves in the workplace by working harder and going above and beyond to get noticed. However extra hours don’t always translate to a promotion or the most desirable work projects in a workplace. Likewise, missing out on golf days, Friday night drinks or corporate football match outings shouldn’t hold women back from gaining opportunities in the workplace though the reality is it still often does.
Instead of working excessive hours, an output based system removes gender bias from the equation and promotes a healthier, merits-based workplace environment. Instead of Friday night drinks, lunch catch-ups should be the norm. Men should be provided with female mentors to help them understand what it’s like for women at work. The bonus is that men will also have someone on hand who can explain situations to them they may not be aware of, which helps avoid potential conflicts at work.
Organisations have rightfully made a place for women amongst their ranks, but it is women who are agitating for more and better opportunities, especially leadership opportunities. In place of tokenism in the name of gender equality, it’s time for businesses to take a more active stance to invest in women’s wellbeing. By taking concrete action, they’ll show themselves to be true allies of working women which will stand them in good stead when it comes to attracting the best quality employees.
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