While the gender pay gap and the “glass ceiling” aren’t new topics of conversation, more companies have begun committing to working toward a future of true equity. Yet progress remains slow, and women still aren’t adequately represented at the highest levels of leadership: McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report found that just one in five C-suite positions are occupied by a woman, and just one in 25 by a woman of color. At the same time, white men occupy less than one-half of the workplace (38%) but make up a significant majority (85%) of executive positions at large- and mid-size companies.

Causes and Barriers to Progress

When it comes to hiring and promoting, research shows that women are simply not considered when major seats or jobs open up. The McKinsey report also found that, overall, women are hired and promoted at a lower rate than men, giving women far fewer opportunities to make it into management and have a chance at assuming the most senior roles. Another study from Yale Insights found that women are not promoted at the same rate as men because managers underestimate their leadership potential, even when those same women are outperforming their male peers on assessments of current performance.

But barriers to progress go beyond the hiring and promoting process. Regardless of role, the average woman is still earning about 15% less than the average male, a number that has remained relatively unchanged for the past 15 years, according to Pew Research.  In 2017, women earned 81.8 cents for every dollar a man made, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and today they make 84 cents for every dollar a man makes, a gain of approximately one-half of a cent gain each year.  This overall pay gap is due largely to the fact that women still don’t have equal access to the highest paying jobs.

A Human Priority and a Business Priority

A lack of women in leadership roles is not only unfair… it’s also bad for business. When it comes to unequal representation of women in the workplace, there are typically two types: horizontal segregation and vertical segregation. Horizontal segregation refers to women being clustered in lower-paying departments and/or roles (e.g., human resources, accounting, facilities) while men are clustered in higher-paying operational roles (e.g., product development, marketing and sales, general management). Vertical segregation refers to women being clustered at the bottom of the organization (e.g., entry level through middle management) while men are disproportionately represented at the highest levels (vice president and C-level roles).

This lack of horizontal and vertical integration not only contributes significantly to the overall pay gap and persistent economic gender disparity, but also is bad for business at large. A recent study from the Peterson Institute, for example, found that female executives are correlated with higher profits; companies that have at least 30% female leadership experience a 15% boost in profitability compared to similar companies with no female leaders.

Creating Progress

To overcome the barriers to progress, companies must be intentional. Consider the following tactics to boost gender equity in your organization:

  • Require recruiters to include at least one woman on every candidate slate for leadership roles. Qualified, high-performing women are often overlooked due to unconscious bias, a fact that training managers must make clear to both executives and the hiring team. Encourage organizational leaders to be proactive about getting women into the consideration set for key roles. Again and again, we see that, when more women have a chance to interview, more women are ultimately hired. When Parity.Org surveyed companies 18 to 24 months after taking our ParityPLEDGE (a public commitment to interview at least one qualified woman for every open leadership role), it resulted in 80% hiring at least one woman on their executive teams, and more than one-quarter achieved full gender parity on their executive teams.
  • Redact names of candidates on resumes. In addition to including women on their candidate slates, leaders may need to go one step further by concealing the fact that those candidates are women, again, to mitigate unconscious bias. Once recruiters have an initial pool of applicants, redacting those candidates’ names on their resumes before presenting them to hiring managers can increase objectivity at the earliest stages of the interview process. Very few companies use this method to reduce bias, perhaps because it adds another step to the hiring process. Reiterate to hiring managers and executives that doing so will ensure that great candidates who, in the past, might have been overlooked, will now be given more equitable consideration.
  • Leverage a measurement tool to inform and focus your efforts. We like to say that “you can’t fix what you can’t see.” At Parity.Org, we have found that most companies are doing many things right, but simply have certain departments or job bands in which hiring, promotion or compensation rates are not as equitable as they should be. A specialized diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) analytics platform can help you pinpoint previously invisible patterns and disparities to determine areas of focus for your DEI training and awareness efforts.
  • Institute other policies and benefits that specifically address common barriers for women in the workplace. From providing assistance with child and elder care to encouraging both women and men to take their full parental leave, there are many tangible things that organizations can do to level the playing field. Make sure that all employees are aware of their benefits during onboarding and train leaders to encourage employees to utilize them to the fullest.

Lasting Change

Committing to do better, and acknowledging that unconscious bias exists, is just the first step. To reach and sustain gender parity in leadership, companies will need to make fundamental changes in their recruitment, training and hiring practices. Lasting change will require concrete actions that stop unconscious bias in its tracks, and it will require forward-thinking benefits and policies that remove the barriers that have historically held women back.