Game-Changing Strategies to Improve Women’s Representation in the Workplace

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The first World Conference on Women took place in 1975, with women calling for equal rights and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. In addition to the many forms of discrimination that women still endure, they also experience discrimination in the workplace and remain significantly underrepresented in leadership roles across most sectors. Many organisations express a desire to increase women’s representation and equal participation in the workplace but are unsure where to start or how to create meaningful, sustainable change. Based on a survey of extant research and a review of the literature, the RE-WIRING research team found effective strategies that organisations could implement.

First thing first – collect data! Then monitor and identify problem areas, take action, assess the effectiveness of your actions, and recalibrate. In other words: Examine – Analyse – Reflect (EAR). So keep an EAR to ground and know what is going on in your organisation to better represent women in the workplace!

Audit and Transform Organisational Culture
Ultimately, culture change across the entire organisation is essential for any gender diversity effort to fully succeed in the long term. Honest assessments of existing company values, practices, policies, and “unspoken assumptions” (i.e., gender bias) that may reinforce male-dominated leadership models are required. Identify areas for improvement and implement changes. Leaders at all levels, not just human resources staff or women employees themselves, must champion these efforts.

Organisational/Workplace Culture: The Essence
Founders and leaders of organisations have the greatest impact on how the organisational culture is created, preserved, and altered in time since it originates from the founders’ values and assumptions about the right way of doing things and dealing with challenges (Stamarski & Son Hing, 2015). The workplace has been greatly male-biased and the ideal worker has been perceived as men since management and leadership have been considered as male space (Think Manager, Think Male – Schein & Davidson, 1993), and the practices designed by men resist any attempt at change (Straub, 2007). In other words, workplace culture is ingrained with masculine norms, celebrating and associating them with success at work, considering women as ‘other’ and sanctioning women who conform to masculine norms [e.g., being labelled irrational (North‐Samardzic & Taksa, 2011), a bitch (Williams, Kilanski, & Muller, 2014)] as well as preventing women from occupying masculine spaces through recruitment and promotion (e.g., glass ceiling, sticky floors). Organisational culture encompasses members’ collective values, beliefs, assumptions, and principles that form the foundation of an organisation’s management system; it reflects on and ascribes meanings to practices, policies, and procedures; it influences and reinforces workplace behaviours; and it impacts opportunities for career advancement, particularly for women (Coe, Wiley, & Bekker, 2019; Sougou, et al., 2022; Stamarski & Son Hing, 2015).
Women’s progression from entering the labour market to achieving leadership positions is largely reliant on whether or not organisational cultures support women in leadership (Mousa, et al., 2023). This is because both internal and external circumstances have the power to either strengthen or alleviate deeply rooted, gendered social expectations and, thus, can form the organisational culture (Mousa, et al., 2023). If policies are incompatible with the assumptions, values, and beliefs of the company, efforts to create a favourable climate will fail; on the other hand, if policies and procedures are not structured around the shared objectives and beliefs, a positive culture will not provide the intended outcome (Coe, Wiley, & Bekker, 2019).
Strategies targeting culture change benefit not only the targeted group but also the entire organisation. However, even the best gender diversity strategies and supporting tools will not be successful if they are not rooted efficiently in the organisational culture (Senden & Visser, 2014). In other words, opportunities aimed at developing women’s skills achieve very little in the absence of a supportive workplace culture. To illustrate, leadership development programmes for women are proven to be beneficial only when they are part of organisational culture change (Mousa, et al., 2021).

Here is an example: For a step-by-step guide on how to plan a “gender equality” transformation in your institution, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) and the gender mainstreaming toolkit.

And another one?! The Gender Equality Strategy Guide and the Gender Equality Diagnostic Tool by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) of the Australian Government aim to assist businesses in achieving workplace gender equality.

Game-Changing Strategies

1. Stop Fixing Women!

Instead of focusing on changing women, organisations should focus on fixing organisational policies and practices that perpetuate gender inequality.

2. Explore Targeted Quotas

Consider targeted quotas for management roles or boards to accelerate gender balance. Contrary to common concerns, research shows quotas do not lower quality standards and actually raise competency bars overall (Besley, et al., 2017; Seierstad, et al., 2021; Eckbo, Nygaard, & Thorbu, 2022; Garcia-Blandon, et al., 2023).

How to deal with the aversion to quotas? (a) implement specific targets on the company’s strategy for gender diversity; (b) raise the strategy for gender diversity to the same levels of budget and performance targets; (c) make sure the targets are not only about the numbers of women but also qualitative measures, new ways of working together, i.e., more respectful interactions, inclusive meeting practices such as flexibility in where and when the work gets done (Baruah & Biskupski-Mujanovic, 2021).

3. Prioritise Sponsorship Programmes

In addition to traditional mentoring, implement sponsorship programmes where influential senior leaders actively advocate for and promote high-potential women in the organisation. This level of public endorsement and backing is more impactful than mentoring alone in terms of advancing someone’s career, and men already have access to sponsorship via their mentors as well as the old-boys’ networks. Compared to their male peers, women are over-mentored and undersponsored (Ibarra, Carter, & Silva, 2010).

Did you know??? Promoting oneself is linked to gender stereotypes of men being assertive and self-promoting, and women representing or sponsoring other women confirm gender stereotypes of women as being helpful and nurturing (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Kulik & Olekalns, 2012). When women sponsors advocate for their protégés, they negotiate more assertively and compromise less (Kulik & Olekalns, 2012). Nevertheless, men as sponsors yield better results, as men often wield large spheres of power and privilege within organisations (Spector, O’Toole, & Overholser, 2022). Thus, informal sponsorship usually benefits men and disadvantages women (Dandar & Lautenberger, 2021). The lesson here for organisations is to ensure that sponsorship is formal, structured, and recognised within the organisation, avoiding gender stereotypes.

4. Implement Opt-Out Systems

Rather than traditional opt-in systems for promotions and leadership opportunities that tend to disadvantage women, switch to opt-out systems where all qualified employees are automatically considered. Employees can still decline nominations if they choose.

5. Ensure Equitable Representation

Organisations should strive for equitable representation of women and men on recruitment panels, interview panels, promotion committees, and performance review panels to avoid biases in decision-making. In addition, set targets for gender representation in each round of promotions and hold managers accountable for proposing candidates in line with these targets.

6. Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Establish monitoring and evaluation systems to track the effectiveness of initiatives and interventions aimed at transforming organisational culture and promoting gender equality. The path towards gender equality in the workplace requires committed, holistic efforts across all levels of an organisation. But with thoughtful, research-backed strategies and dedicated leadership commitment, we can collectively create more equitable workplaces where women are given truly equal opportunities, and can truly thrive in leadership – not just given roles in times of crisis to watch them fail.

Please see our toolkit for better practices and guidelines on how to improve women’s representation at the workplace, and the steps to start the transformation of the organisational culture in your organisation.