Since 1909, International Women’s Day (March 8) has been an important day to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements and call for gender parity. Fast forward to the 21st century and the world today is incredibly different. It’s fast-paced with innovation creating mobility and informal work patterns, yet there remains the problem of how to solve the lack of women in leadership roles.
I have been in the workforce for more than 25 years and have experienced first-hand the ups and downs of corporate life and unconscious bias. I’ve been overlooked for management roles because I was seen to be stronger at operations; I’ve seen peers who put their careers on hold – for even just a couple of years – side-lined from leadership positions; and others who have paid the ultimate price for moving from full-time to part-time employment.
In my own social experiment and conscious move to build my own career capital, I harnessed every initiative that came my way. I participated in executive networking; I was mentored, and have been a mentor. I committed to lifelong learning in many settings and formats. But after rising rapidly to middle management, I stagnated.
Be the change you wish to see in the world
Frustrated with ‘the system’, I ventured out on my own and built a consultancy based around flexibility, mobility and collaboration. In this new environment, I focused on extending my strengths by continuing to be mentored and pursuing executive education.
This was a pivot point, and with a portfolio of global ‘C suite’ clients, I began to lead from the outside with challenging and high level strategic assignments, all the while being granted a seat at the boardroom table. I have no regrets, but I question why women should have to leave the ‘system’ to achieve parity. Despite the exponential advancements in technology, there has been a comparatively slow advancement towards equality.
If I was to be asked by ‘the system’ what they should do, this would be my advice. There’s opportunity, and then there’s workable solutions:
- It’s time to challenge organisational norms. It baffles me that companies will quickly adapt their organisational structures to manage the pace of change, new market trends and customer demand, yet their approach to gender based issues are based on outdated paradigms or assumption. Research shows that organisations with greater diversity have improved productivity and profitability (McKinsey and PIIE).
- Women are earning postgraduate degrees in record numbers, but by the time they graduate they’re at the average age of starting a family. When a woman returns she often earns less and is less likely to hold a senior position, which perpetuates the lack of diversity in business leadership pipelines. Most organisational systems are designed around groups of jobs and roles. Meaningful work design has a greater impact on productivity, motivation and satisfaction over traditional role-based job design.
- Women are constantly told they overthink what their existing capabilities are; whereas men will assess what they care capable of doing. Focusing on women’s lack of confidence and their choice to “opt out” detracts from the work that must be done at the organisational system and support level. Let’s stop telling women they lack confidence and that they need to be more assertive. Let’s start embracing them for the value they bring to organisational life.
- Companies are implementing gender targets and quotas to improve participation in leadership and on boards. Criteria such as gender versus the merit-based system (which suggests that there is a level playing field to begin with), has resulted in perceptions that gender-based appointments promote those who are less deserving and less capable. This does not break down structures and becomes nothing more than tokenism. Women would much rather be appointed based on the value they can bring to an organisation versus meeting a quota.
New structures will be the enabler
Instead of focusing on women’s choices causing the pay gap, perhaps it’s time to redesign and overhaul organisational structures. The new structure would support leadership development and corporate cultures that truly value contribution and diversity.
We must take responsibility for changing structures and attitudes in the workplace. Let’s stop trying to bend women into traditional organisational structures and start to fix the system by valuing and utilising female talent to their highest potential.
Originally putblished in QUT Business Insights.
QUT Business School supports International Women’s Day and is proud to be the Queensland Education Partner of the UN Women National Committee (NC) Australia. To find out more, visit their website.