Gender diversity in the workplace continues to be a critical issue for companies around the world, with the representation of women in the boardroom being particularly indicative of the problem. In 2021, a McKinsey report on women in the workplace found that although women have gained traction in leadership roles, they still constitute less than 25 percent of executive positions. The following year, McKinsey reported that “despite modest gains in representation over the last eight years, women – and especially women of color – are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate America,” and that only one in 20 of C-suite leaders in the United States is a woman of color. The report suggests two major problems that are causing challenges to organizations for reaching gender equality:
- Broken rung at the frontline levels: For every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, only 87 women are promoted. Men significantly outnumber the women at the manager level.
- Women leave companies at the top level: For every one woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two female directors leave the company.
This creates a double leak of female talent in the pipeline. According to a recent ranking of nations by the World Economic Forum based on their Global Gender Gap Index published in 2023, there is slow but widespread progress in narrowing the gender gap around the world. The Index consistently ranks Iceland, year after year, at the top of the list alongside three other Nordic countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden) and New Zealand in the top five. The United States lands 43rd in world. In Southern Asia, Bangladesh ranks the highest at 59, followed by China at 107. India comes in at 127 due to a lack of adequate economic participation and opportunity for women despite high enrolments in education across all levels and increased political empowerment to women.
Interestingly, despite being at the top of the list, Iceland still identifies the issue as a problem in need of fixing. On October 24, there was a “kvennafrí” in Iceland in which women and nonbinary people were urged to refuse paid and unpaid work (for example, housework) for the day, in protest of gender wage gaps and violence. Among those taking the day – the first full-day women’s strike in the country since 1975 – was the Prime Minster, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
As part of a forthcoming working paper aimed at understanding the challenges women face in their way up in an organization, we interviewed more than 100 women who are currently either C-level or senior managers in the northern states of India and have held different positions at various organizations (public, private, non-profits). We discovered reoccurring challenges to the corporate progress of women and that these women tended to counter them with what we have termed as the 3Cs of Gender Resilience: Courage, Communication, Conviction.
Courage: Numerous studies shed light on the challenges faced by women on corporate boards. For example, research from IE University’s Patricia Gabaldon and coauthors found that women might self-identify with expected cultural gender roles, thereby creating internal barriers to leadership positions. This self-limiting mindset might deter women from having the courage to apply for the top management positions, let alone board positions. To further illustrate the impact of this self-conditioning, our study includes comments from a female founder of a prominent nonprofit in India who said that women “sort of give-up mentally convincing themselves, that’s not for me.” This social conditioning and stereotyping is possibly one of the strong reasons for fewer women in the top management.
Demonstrations of courage from men and women are likely to be perceived differently by supervisors.
According to McKinsey, women in the workplace come up against various forms of deliberate microaggressions that undermine their authority, including actions from their male colleagues such as disregarding their meetings, ideas, deadlines, and emails. So, the long and the short of it is that it takes a significant amount of courage for women to stand up to these internal and external barriers – to confront intimidation and uncertainty – in the workplace.
A study from Oleksander Tkachenko of the University of New Mexico and his colleagues looked at the relationship between courage and job performance and found that demonstrations of courage from men and women are likely to be perceived differently by supervisors and that, regardless of gender, demonstrating behavioural courage increases in its positive affects as the individual moves into higher leadership positions. Also, showing patterns of behavioural courage is a further boon to women as they move upwards within the organization because they become more noticeable, thanks to both their courage and their gender, and are thus rated higher for job performance as well which is fundamental to attain any leadership position in an organization.
Communication: Within any organization, effective communication is the key element for people seeking to shape their workplace. This certainly applies to female executives who speak up regarding gender issues. Our study found that women who are assertive and communicate well are perceived more positively by their co-workers than those who do not speak up – and this in turn helps to affect change. The chairman of a large public sector bank in India said that she has always made a point of addressing even subtle acts of gender bias in the organization, bringing the issue to the top management (many of whom being men). For example, when she was a young executive, the bank gave a necktie to all the executives at the end of a review meeting. She went to the then-chairman of the bank and (as she recalled), said to him: “Thank you for gifting us a tie. I hope my colleagues will not be surprised or mock me if they see me proudly wearing this tie over a saree tomorrow.” The chairman got the hint and from then on, all gifts from the organization were gender neutral.
This example demonstrates how both courage and the ability to communicate plays a significant role for the executive who does not hesitate to speak straight to the decision-maker. Most importantly, she was able to get her point across in a tactful and straightforward manner. Others in our study commented that it is through our communication skills, the kind of discourses we create, comply with, and engage in, that determine our fate as gendered identities in the organization.
Conviction: A recent study of female workers in the EU, UK, and Italy, led by Valeria de Cristofaro of Sapienza University, shows that when women display strong moral convictions against the gender leadership gap in organizations, they can overcome the effect of systemic justifications of undermining women and their performance. The head of talent acquisition of a financial services company in India told us that while there are some industries where women are on par with men, there are many others that have a long way to go. It will take a significant amount of conviction to get more women into leadership positions, and particularly in the boardroom.
It seems that much of this conviction will need to come from women themselves, and their focus on prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Yet, while DEI initiatives have been proven to have a positive impact employee satisfaction and retention, as well as the bottom line, initiatives are not rewarded in most companies – which means the uphill work of promoting DEI can eventually lead to burnout, meaning that these talented but discouraged women may be more likely to leave their jobs. In such a scenario, the key for women is to show not only conviction but also maintain a well of resilience, both of which just happen to be traits of true leaders.
To make gender diversity work in organizations, it needs to be prioritized across the various levels and functions of the business. DEI initiatives are not a short-term fix but an initiative for attaining the long-term vision of a successful and sustainable enterprise. When we see examples of women representation at top management, it gives hope to others within the organization, that the success of diversity is possible in any form inside the organizations, whether it be race, caste, or gender.
Each organization must take the steps to understand their stage of maturity in regards to DEI and then take tangible steps to move forward and improve. Most remain simply at the stage of compliance without making efforts to actually integrate DEI into everything that the organization does, from hiring and managing talent to embedding ensuring DEI follow through at the board level.
The US-based insurance company Progressive was rated as the 2023 best employer in America for its DEI initiatives, by Forbes. The company runs multiple programs across the organization aimed at creating open environment that fosters diversity and inclusive culture, and to live the true meaning of their brand name “progressive.” Citigroup runs a range of DEI initiatives not just within the company but outside as well. According to Erika Irish Brown, the Global Head for Talent at Citi, “Diversity, equity and inclusion are foundational to our culture and the growth of our business, and we look forward to continuing to advance progress for our colleagues, clients and the communities we serve.” Both Progressive and Citigroup have two things in common: they integrate DEI across all the activities and functions of the organization and both have female representation at the C-level. Representation of women at the top is not just an essential first step towards gender diversity throughout an organization but also for creating and following through on a vision of the organization that transcends any barrier that may create inequities.
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