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Bridging the Gender Gap: Practical Steps Toward Inclusive Corporate Leadership

The key to unlocking the full potential of our workforce is empowering women and other marginalized groups in corporate leadership.

In our last article, we confronted the stark reality of the gender gap in corporate America. A few key takeaways from that article:

 

  • The data shows that there are more college-educated women than men in the workforce 
  • Yet, men still hold the overwhelming majority of leadership positions
  • Research shows that women-led companies are more profitable, innovative, and inclusive than those led by men

 

(You can read the full article here.)

 

It’s clear that empowering women and other marginalized groups in corporate leadership is the key to unlocking the full potential of our workforce. Now, it’s time to translate that information into actionable steps that foster gender diversity and inclusion at the highest levels of our organizations.

Understanding the barriers to gender diversity

If we want to break down the barriers that keep women out of the boardroom, we first need to acknowledge and understand them. Some of these barriers are obvious — like the fact that women earn less than men for the same work. However, less obvious systemic challenges, such as male-dominated professional networks, inflexible work policies and a lack of access to child care — coupled with subtle biases and assumptions about traditional gender roles — also perpetuate the gender gap.

From awareness to action

While awareness is a commendable first step, actually addressing these biases and systemic barriers is crucial for fostering a workplace that is genuinely inclusive and provides equal opportunities for all, irrespective of gender. Here are some ways organizations can make this a reality:

1. Close the pay gap

According to a 2023 Pew Research Center analysis, the gender pay gap in the United States was estimated to be around 18% — meaning that, on average, women earned about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. These numbers are even worse for other marginalized groups, with Black and Hispanic women earning 70% and 65% less than white men, respectively.

 

Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ women earn about 79 cents for every dollar that the average man in the U.S. earns, while women with a disability earn 72 cents for every dollar that men with a disability earn.  Conducting regular pay equity audits and addressing any disparities are crucial steps to closing these gaps. 

2. Wave goodbye to hiring and recruitment biases

Aside from fixing the pay gap, there are simple steps companies can take to attract and hire more diverse talent. Things like:  

 

  • Removing gendered language from job descriptions
  • Ensuring hiring panels are diverse to mitigate unconscious biases
  • Removing personally identifiable information, such as names and gender, from resumes during the initial stages of the hiring process 
  • Using standardized interview questions to ensure consistency in evaluating candidates

 

These practices help create a more inclusive hiring process that actively promotes gender diversity and attracts a diverse range of talented candidates.

3. Offer mentorship and sponsorship programs

Mentorship programs are instrumental in helping women navigate their career paths. These programs offer guidance, support, and a platform for personal and professional development. 

 

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors and the first female CEO in the automotive industry, put it this way: “Twenty years ago, I was pushed and mentored and given challenging assignments and then supported. That allowed me to have the career path I’ve had.”

 

Similar to mentorship, sponsorship programs actively advocate for women, ensuring they have access to leadership opportunities. Both mentorship and sponsorship contribute to building a pipeline of capable and empowered female leaders.

4. Consider flexible work policies

“While women are more educated and more employed than ever, they are still taking on most of the household and familial duties,”  writes Maggie Germano for Forbes. “And it’s not just about chores and childcare; women are also much more likely to be the ones who care for sick or elderly family members.”

 

While employers can’t single-handedly change societal expectations, one thing they can do is implement flexible work policies that help accommodate caregiving. These policies include things like telecommuting and remote work, flexible hours, job sharing, and compressed workweeks. 

 

Of course, flexible work policies don’t just benefit women. They also benefit students, people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and workers who live in areas where commuting is difficult. In fact, 94 percent of employees say they would benefit from flexible work policies, according to Deloitte research.

5. Prioritize transparency and accountability

One of the most effective ways to ensure a company sticks to its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments is to openly report on gender diversity metrics. This includes things like workforce demographics, retention and advancement, pay equity, and job satisfaction. 

 

Setting measurable goals and holding leadership accountable for achieving gender parity ensures that diversity and inclusion are not just aspirations, but tangible objectives. Some places to include gender diversity metrics are in internal communications, in your annual report, and on your website. 

6. Offer leadership training for inclusivity

There’s no question that leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the organization’s culture. So, do your organization’s leaders promote a culture that welcomes women and other marginalized groups? Or do they unintentionally cater to a predominantly white male workforce? 

 

One of the most effective ways to promote diversity is to make sure that women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities are represented in visible leadership roles. As we wrote in our last article, “Including women and other marginalized groups at the top sends a powerful message to employees at all levels that the organization values diversity and is committed to providing equal opportunities for all.”

 

Investing in leadership training programs that focus on fostering an inclusive and diverse workplace culture is also essential. By equipping leaders with the tools to champion inclusivity, companies can create spaces where diverse perspectives are not only valued but actively sought out. 

7. Be a “glass kicker”

Everyone, not just women, must fight against gender inequality to break through the glass ceiling. Men — especially those in positions of power — have a unique opportunity to leverage their influence and act as allies for women and marginalized groups.

 

In fact, male executives who are trained on how to be allies are far more likely to speak up about incidents of gender inequality than men who are not trained in this approach, according to a 2018 study.

 

“They are not going to be penalized for speaking out the way a woman would,” said Victoria Mattingly, an industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist who authored the study. 

 

Likewise, allyship should be looked at through an intersectional lens. White women can serve as allies for women of color, able-bodied individuals as allies for those with disabilities, or heterosexuals as allies for those within the LGBTQIA+ community.

 

“It’s a matter of recognizing our privileges, working through biases that we all have as humans, and then leveraging that privilege to either step up or step back or step in and help those who have historically been left behind when it comes to advancing into leadership roles,” Mattingly explained.

Your next steps

In order to bridge the gender gap, actionable steps are needed. By understanding and dismantling barriers to advancement, building support networks and promoting work-life integration, and embracing transformative leadership practices, we can dismantle systemic barriers and promote gender equity in the workplace and beyond.

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