How Leaders Can Support Women in the Workplace

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, we are identifying the barriers that women face in the workplace and what employers can do in response. Only 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and less than 1% are women of color. Yet research indicates that companies with women in senior leadership positions are more profitable and more socially responsible. Redefining leadership to meet the demands of today’s world requires a reimagination of how companies support and empower women in the workplace. 

We have seen incremental progress toward gender inclusion in the workplace. However, when we consider the millions of women who exited the workforce during the pandemic due to personal and family obligations, we are not doing enough. Women face various barriers in the workplace that hold them back from scaling the corporate ladder and leading with conviction. This leads to a further lack of representation and also hinders the talent pipeline of female employees who can achieve senior leadership roles. Below, we look at some of these barriers and identify actions to support women in the workplace.

Lack of pay equity

Despite mitigation efforts, the gender pay gap in the U.S. remains steady, with women earning 84% of what men take home. The pay gap negatively impacts female employees and their companies; being underpaid leads to lower productivity, decreased engagement, and higher turnover rates. Additionally, a lack of salary transparency prevents women from seeking information on equitable pay and leaves them less prepared to advocate for themselves when seeking a promotion or raise. The pay inequity is even worse for women of color—they earn 64 cents for every dollar that a white, non-Hispanic male takes home. 

Limited access to paid leave

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world lacking a national paid family leave policy, and only 17% of private-sector workers have access to paid leave. For women, it can be difficult to balance family and caregiving obligations with work responsibilities. One in four women reports that family caregiving obligations have negatively impacted their work and ability to advance in their careers. 

Feelings of burnout

Women face higher rates of burnout than their male counterparts; according to McKinsey, one in three women considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce in 2021. Burnout is often a result of the unrecognized, unpaid tasks that women take on in the workplace, like checking on other employees and offering emotional support. Burnout also stems from balancing work obligations with housework and caregiving responsibilities. 

Harassment and discrimination

Sexual harassment in the workplace negatively impacts mental health, job advancement, and learning opportunities, and sometimes forces the individual to change jobs. Women make professional sacrifices in order to feel safe at work. According to a Pew Research study, 42% of working women in the U.S. report having experienced discrimination while at work. Discrimination manifests as receiving unequal pay, having less support from senior leaders, being treated as less competent, and being passed over for important assignments. Further, women in leadership positions are more likely to face microaggressions, such as being interrupted, receiving comments on their emotional state, or having their judgment questioned. 

Steps to take to support women in the workplace

Conduct a pay equity analysis

Salary transparency is incredibly important to gender equity in the workplace. Companies should conduct a pay equity audit to uncover and remedy disparities in compensation. Start by identifying the purpose of the audit, what goals the company seeks to achieve, and who will be involved in the process. Once the data is collected and analyzed, address any pay disparities and communicate with employees as to what your strategy is to avoid future gaps.  

Launch a mentorship program for women

Mentorship programs increase retention for female employees and help them advance professionally. This can help address pipeline issues where women, especially women of color, are not able to access promotions and move up—a broken rung in the leadership ladder. To launch a successful mentorship program, provide structure on engagement with the program and be thoughtful about the pairings. It is important that both the mentor and mentee gain value from the experience. 

Implement a comprehensive paid leave policy

Paid family and medical leave is one of the most talked-about workplace policies right now and having an equitable policy is long overdue. While there may not be federal legislation, companies can demonstrate their commitment to women by implementing a comprehensive paid leave policy that allows all employees to take paid time off and return to work without repercussions. It is also important to acknowledge that caregiving is not just for new parents; many employees also care for aging parents. Companies should also encourage leaders, especially men, to lead by example and utilize paid leave when necessary. 

Sponsor an employee resource group for women

Employee resource groups (ERGs) provide a space where women can discuss shared challenges, offer support, and grow professionally. Consider ERGs a space for collective bargaining where women can advocate for policies that improve their employee experiences, such as flexible work options or better paid leave. Leaders can support ERGs by providing funding, incorporating ERG responsibilities into performance reviews, and compensating ERG members. 

Cultivate safe workplaces

Companies can create safer workplaces by implementing strong policies that prevent discrimination and harassment and offer clear recourse if an incident occurs. At the federal level, President Biden is set to sign into law the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021, which prevents employers from forcing sexual harassment and assault cases into arbitration. Elevating the public nature of these cases also pushes companies to prevent harassment and discrimination from happening in the first place and to create safer workplaces for women. 

Women are the future of work—invest in them

As the workforce recovers from the pandemic and recalibrates after the Great Resignation, the future of work is changed. More than ever, companies are focused on ESG and DEI while navigating increased competition in creating long-term value. Companies need strategic, transformative leaders to guide them through future challenges. When women join senior management teams, the C-suite becomes more open to innovation, more risk-averse, and more focused on internal knowledge-building. And having women in leadership positions benefits women throughout the organization by challenging gender stereotypes

This month and beyond, consider how your company can honor Women’s History Month by cultivating a workplace that supports and invests in women. We cannot achieve equality in the workplace without addressing the issues that unfairly hold women back. We must implement policies that demonstrate an intentional commitment to supporting women. 

Jessie Miller

Published on March 10, 2022