Business Leaders Need to Do Much More to Support Gender Equality in the Workforce

If businesses really want to embrace gender diversity, their leaders have to be intentional about it.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the February 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Accomplishing any objective requires that you give it intention and focus. If you want to eat healthy, you must think about every morsel you consume. If you want to obtain a bachelor’s degree, you get accepted to college, enroll in classes and pass the required coursework. In the same way, if you want to create a work environment where the contributions of women are appreciated and where women ascend to positions of responsibility and authority, you must intend to do so.

There is a persistent need to do more in the corporate workforce to drive gender diversity, and it begins with awareness in the leadership ranks.

Some years ago, when I was lacking female representation on my executive team, I told the recruiter to send me mostly female applicants. The recruiter pushed back, telling me I might sell myself short by passing over the men, that it was just as important to get the right person. Knowing full well that it would potentially take twice as long to find a qualified female as it would be to find a qualified male, I sensed the recruiter resisted because my request was going to require more effort. 

He was absolutely right. It requires about five times the effort because far fewer women aspire to executive level jobs, according to a “Women in the Workplace” study by McKinsey & Company. Recent research tells us this is primarily because women feel they must make a choice between career and family. My experience tells me this is accurate, as I frequently speak with many young women in entry-level roles who downplay their career ambitions for fear of losing the opportunity to have a family. In fact, they are often surprised to learn I have two school-age children myself, that I cook dinner most nights, drive my boys to baseball practice and regularly attend their school functions — all with the equal support of my husband. 

These young women are surprised because people have either told them directly or somehow demonstrated to them that women must make a choice, which is simply not true. Other deterrents to women reaching top executive roles are the lack of regular interaction with senior leaders and, similarly, their receiving little advice on how to advance. It has been shown that women afforded these opportunities have greater ambitions for advancement. 

What we need are more leaders and mentors — male and female — to support equality in the workforce and to make diversity part of a broader, more open dialogue.

Although one might assume having a female CEO would be enough to set the bar high in regard to advancement opportunities for women throughout the organization, this is not necessarily true. The CEO must consciously set standards for behavior and provide accountability to creating opportunities for women. Leaders at all levels of the organization must promote behaviors that support an equitable workforce. The right behavior includes mentoring women, assisting them to develop their careers and acknowledging that they will likely need additional support, particularly when it comes to children.  

Not long ago, we had a high-potential, career-ambitious female manager preparing to go on maternity leave with her first child. Her boss is a respected and experienced C-level executive, whom some might find intimidating. She had expressed to him that she was thinking about cutting her leave time short. A father himself, he told her she should cherish these first months with her new baby and encouraged her to take the entire allotted leave. He later told me she thanked him profusely and that he “could see the weight lifted off her shoulders.” He was intentional about making sure she felt secure in her job and in knowing she didn’t need to let go of her career ambitions. She returned to work after a full 12-week leave, and today she is one of our top performers.  

Numerous studies have shown that promoting equality in the workplace produces better business results and allows the best talent to rise to the top. It is paramount that companies understand and promote gender equality in all ranks of their business, which requires thoughtful, intentional desire to see women succeed. 

Mina Worthington is the president and CEO of Yakima-based Solarity Credit Union. Reach her at mworthington@solaritycu.org.

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