Gender Equality in the Workplace: 6 Steps to Fix Imbalance & Fuel Competitiveness

Download Your Gender Equality Workbook

Achievements in gender equality in the workplace have yet to achieve parity among corporate wage earners or produce full transparency into pay disparities. In 2020, as the US commemorates 100 years since women gained the right to vote, many senior executives – including HR leaders – are committed to continuing efforts to close the gender-based wage gap and attain gender equality in the workplace. When businesses run with a gender imbalance, they are essentially driving talented women out or marginalizing their output. Imagine your favorite sports team benching more than 50% of its roster and trying to stay competitive.

Here are six strategic initiatives that can help businesses achieve gender equality and maximize 100% of their talent pool.

1. Scrutinize Pay by Gender

Many people wonder why gender equality in the workplace is still an issue. It’s been more than 50 years since the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and 1964’s Civil Rights Act that included Title VII, which protects discrimination in employment based on age, race, or gender. And yet, women today still only make 0.80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. The gap is even larger for women of color, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research.

Many factors contribute to this gap, including occupation segregation based on gender.

This is when men overwhelmingly perform certain jobs, while women overwhelmingly perform others. It’s important to note, however, that experts agree that the wage gap is not just a straightforward matter that can easily be cured by women “choosing” STEM fields to launch themselves into higher-paying careers. While occupation and job type might account for some of the gap, it’s not the only factor. Educated women still earn less than men with similar educational backgrounds. According to The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, “women who work in male-dominated occupations are paid significantly less than similarly educated males in those occupations.”

The first step in addressing any such gender equality in the workplace is to understand the scope of the issue by analyzing your own data. Business leaders could start with the report they filed in 2019 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last year was the first year U.S. employers with at least 100 employees were required to disclose to the EEOC what employees are paid in each job category by gender, race, and ethnicity. While this new mandate gives the EEOC a window into how much employers pay females and minorities within their workforce, employers are not required to make the data public. However, the report itself can become a powerful internal tool for business leaders. Just recognizing whether or not there is a problem and sharing that knowledge openly is a big step forward.

2. Do a Blind Study of Performance Reviews

Performance reviews have become a cornerstone of the modern workplace. While they may seem like a good way to ensure fairness, recent studies suggest that performance reviews are not as objective as one would think. In fact, many researchers have found these reviews to be fraught with gender bias that prohibit gender equality in the workplace.

How do you figure out if this is happening in your workplace?

To determine if women get harsher feedback than men, bring in a team to analyze a large sampling of your performance reviews (names and identifying data removed, but sorted by gender). Harvard researcher Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio analyzed a blind sample and found that, “on performance reviews, women receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to positive feedback or even critical objective feedback) 1.4 times more often than men.”

Additionally, analyze the type of reviews that your company uses as well. This is key when addressing gender equality in the workplace. Do you rely on self-evaluation or team-evaluation? Studies have found that women consistently rate themselves lower on self-evaluation than men, even when their work and skills are equal or superior, making self-evaluation a non-reliable source of information. Secondly, think about what factors might be influencing the evaluation, such as if a female employee were the only woman on her team.

Asking these questions of your company’s performance reviews can help reveal problems. Addressing the gender bias within reviews can also help women get promoted into well-deserved leadership roles where their talents can be put to greater use.

You might also look out for this form of bias: A Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey found that “women who negotiated for promotions were 30 percent more likely than men to be labeled as intimidating, bossy, or aggressive,” labels which may have found their way into the reviews of these women.

3. Watch Out for Machine Learning That Favors White Males

A well-publicized gaffe at a major tech giant illustrates the critical need to evaluate processes to be sure we don’t inadvertently favor men in awarding opportunities. Amazon tried building an artificial-intelligence (AI) tool to efficiently sort and score resumes to identify rock star candidates among their large volume of applicants. However, as in any AI project, the machine has to “learn” what to look for. Unfortunately, the algorithm they built was fed bad data – presumably based on previous hires who were mostly male. As a result, the AI tool “learned” that men were the preferred applicants. After the problem became apparent, Amazon reportedly had to scrap the program.

Similarly facial recognition systems made by Microsoft, IBM, and other tech giants had trouble identifying faces of those other than white males. This could be a real problem as this technology’s adoption grows in business as well as security applications.

4. Consider Gender Equality in Creating Opportunities

Sometimes systematic bias is based on human-centered systems fed by cultural norms and our own personal biases. For example, women are treated differently even though they work for the same company with the same guarantees of support and coaching. Well-meaning bosses offer women fewer opportunities than men in the same position because of what they think women will prefer or what they assume will better align with their family responsibilities. These opportunities span from relocation assignments to coaching to even social networks, which are very important in moving from C-Suite to executive.

Wondering if your company offers gender-neutral opportunities? Ask these questions:

  • Do you provide the opportunity to build experience and skill through relocation assignments? Are they offered to women as often as men? Or do you assume that she won’t want to move because of her husband’s high paying job?
  • Are women as likely to get executive coaching as men? (How many women currently have an executive coach? How many men?)
  • Are high-profile, demanding projects offered to more men than women? And if so, do they get the same amount of resources to get the job done?
  • What about social networks? Do executives “link in” with women as well as men? Or do your leaders have a higher percentage of up-and-coming male associates versus females in their networks? The social network is a major part of executive camaraderie. Think about how this network can be biased. Also, consider how difficult it is for women and minorities to become part of that network to achieve better gender equality in the workplace.

5. Watch your Language

Language sensitivity goes beyond the terms used to describe women in reviews. It also includes your everyday speech and how you address both women and men in the workplace. Consider diversity and inclusion training for both men and women at all levels. As leaders, the language we use to refer to our employees sets a tone for the rest of the workplace. It also plays a part in increasing gender equality in the workplace.

At the very least, as a leader, coach your employees as to why they should not refer to any adult female as a girl. By this we mean phrases like, “The girls in the office do a great job.” This veiled compliment is a subtle put-down. It also implies that these employees are naïve, unqualified, and undeserving of equal pay. Using “boys” to refer to adult employees is equally offensive. Still can’t appreciate why this is wrong? Think of it this way: Generally speaking, it would be unthinkable to pay a child as much as an adult; or a girl as much as a man. Children (i.e. boys and girls) are unqualified to lead a business. Both women and men, on the other hand, are equally qualified to lead.

6. Investigate then Take Action to Drive Gender Equality in the Workplace

Pledges to change are important, but action must follow – and continue to follow. Even if your company has a women or two on the board or some female executives, be vigilant to see where subtle biases might still exist at all levels. (Well-intentioned, but severely flawed AI projects need to be on your radar!)

It may be 100 years since women fought for the right to vote, but inequality in the workplace is still a big problem. Investigate the issues and gather data. Know your company practices, know the problems that exist, and know the solutions. See if the very design of your policies and practices favors one gender over the other. In turn, analyze if it hampers the ability of more than half your workforce to fully contribute their talents. Taking action to root out such bias helps pave the way for gender equality in the workplace. It also improves business outcomes by allowing everyone to do their best work.

IMPACT Group helps businesses develop talent through proven methodologies involving curriculum and coaching. Learn more about our leadership development programs here.


How ready are you to address gender equality and empower your high-potential women? Download our workbook to review your:

» Overall Workforce
» Career Development Programs
» Hiring Practices
» Development Needs

Click here to receive your free download.