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Women in the workplace – small gains and big hopes

Women in the workplace – small gains and big hopes

Women currently make up almost half of the national workforce. So, with more women in the workplace than ever before, what does this mean for corporate culture and the nature of work? Will we see a feminist Nirvana, filled with benevolent leaders? Will the new workplace be more “Kumbaya” and less “Another One Bites the Dust?” Recent gains have not created as much of a cultural shift as we’d like, but there is hope. Let’s take a look at some of the trends.

Female leadership

Time for a reality check. While we should be thrilled about the new numbers overall, there are scant few women heading large companies and who have jobs at the top. A record number of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but they still comprise less than 10% of the overall total.

Few as they are, they’re doing fine at the top, thank you very much. During recent economic storms, female leaders proved they can be as tough, decisive, and competitive as men. For example, during the volatile economic climate of 2018, General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra led a turnaround that resulted in higher-than-expected earnings for the company.

A sluggish culture shift

So, yes, women can keep investors happy, but what about everybody else at the company? Does an increase in female leadership translate to relationship building over backstabbing? Has a surge in female leadership triggered new corporate policies that favor work-life balance over the 24/7 grind? And have women brought in other women, so that the flood gates are open and unbelievably talented women are pouring into management positions?

Despite our hopes, the gender redistribution of our workforce and the small swell in female CEOs has not created a much-needed seismic culture shift. The fantasy is much different than the day-to-day reality of managing a company, especially a super-sized one.

For one thing, many companies are barely weathering the storm. Whether leaders are struggling to turn a company around, keep shareholders happy, beat the competition, or all of the above, they’re busy making a lot of hard choices. There is little time to radically change their corporate cultures while putting out so many fires.

Secondly, many women don’t want to be seen as “soft,” and others simply aren’t. For example, no one would call Carly Fiorina, the head of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, a wilting lily. According to her memoir, Tough Choices, she was sometimes referred to as Chainsaw Carly.

Thirdly, we haven’t seen much of a secession pipeline for women streaming into upper management positions. When Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy handed the reins to Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, the move made many headlines. But unfortunately, that kind of thing is rare. Women continue to make less than men and are clustered in the lowest salaried jobs. Overall, they are also more likely than their male counterparts to be employed in lower paying industries like education and healthcare.

A word of caution for women in the workplace

Now that there are more women in the workplace, in positions of leadership, and even as CEOs, we can feel hopeful. But it’s important to manage our expectations. While some women leaders may work to redefine their roles, usher in a more authentic and transparent leadership style, and emphasize work-life balance, changing entrenched corporate culture is not easy.

Additionally, women face many of the same risks traditionally associated with the male workforce. With layoffs and restructuring, there are fewer people with more responsibilities. Plus, they’re working longer hours in an already supercharged, high-tech, global, 24/7 environment. And more and more of them are women.

We have to be careful. Men used to be the ones slumped over their desks, dead of heart attacks at 50. Is that the future for women in the workplace? What are the consequences for women as they careen back and forth between the personal and professional? Studies show that women at every level are dealing with exceptional levels of stress. They’re leaving the office and working a “second shift” at home, caring for spouses and children (if they have them), doing the lion’s share of the housework, and looking after elderly relatives. The downsides to women’s new workforce power are: Stress, pressure, exhaustion, burn out, and heart attacks — exactly what used to kill hard-driving corporate men (and often still does).

Looking forward

Even as we celebrate the number of women in the workplace, there is still a lot of work to be done. PriceWaterhouseCoopers outlines three key areas on which to focus:

  1. Transparency and trust: This helps women know where they stand, what it takes to succeed, and how to better advocate for themselves.
  2. Support networks and advocacy: Mentors and role models can have a huge effect on ensuring women succeed in the workplace.
  3. Work-life balance: Leaders who prioritize a healthy work-life balance through things like better maternity and paternity leave, re-entry programs, and flexible scheduling help to prevent bias and promote workplace well-being.

Allowing the gains already achieved to serve as hope for the future, women and men alike can make significant progress toward a more equitable, balanced, fulfilling workplace.

Recruiting women

It’s great to think about the big changes that need to occur in the name of equality. But on a day-to-day basis, we can make smaller, yet significant decisions to advance the cause. For recruiters, this means fighting against gender bias in the hiring process and advocating for equal pay. Learn more about recruiting women in the workplace with Monster Hiring Solutions, where you’ll receive expert recruiting advice and the latest hiring trends.