OPINION: Gender biases diminish advantages businesses could gain from a diverse workforce

Job stereotypes significantly restrict women's career opportunities

Working woman Representational image

In the journey towards gender equality, the professional advancement of women remains a critical area where gender biases persistently hinder progress. Despite evolving workplace dynamics, women in various industries still encounter obstacles that curtail their progress. These biases not only hamper women's advancement but also diminish the advantages businesses could gain from a diverse workforce. According to a LinkedIn study, companies ranking in the top quartile for gender diversity are 25 per cent more likely to outperform their less diverse counterparts financially. This suggests not only the ethical imperative of addressing gender inequality but also the substantial economic benefits of embracing diversity within the corporate sphere.

The many faces of gender bias in workplaces

Gender-based discrimination is a pervasive issue which impacts women on multiple fronts – lower pay, under-representation in leadership roles, restriction to roles based on gender stereotypes, and microaggressions that render the working environment more stressful. 

The "broken rung" phenomenon, which marks a significant disparity in the promotion rates of women to managerial roles compared to men, severely limits the representation of women leaders. This issue creates a bottleneck at the crucial transition from entry-level to management, drastically shrinking the pool of women eligible for upper-level positions and thus constricting the leadership pipeline for female talent. The consequences are evident in women’s professional advancement – from 46 per cent at the entry level, women’s representation is only 25 per cent at the C-suite, which drops to 12 per cent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, as per LinkedIn Economic Graph findings. The scarcity of women in key positions restricts access to top executive roles, reinforcing gender imbalances within the corporate hierarchy. 

A 2023 study conducted by the CFA Institute sheds light on the expanding gender pay gap in India as women ascend the career ladder. Initially, the study indicates a near-equitable pay scale, with the average ratio of women's median remuneration to men's being 0.97, suggesting a close approach to gender pay parity at entry or mid-level positions. Yet, as the focus shifts to higher echelons of management, this semblance of parity sharply declines. For key management personnel (KMP), the ratio plummets to 0.52 – nearly half of men’s pay. Similarly, for director-level positions, the ratio stands at 0.64 – highlighting a significant disparity as women progress to more senior roles. This data underlines the persistent challenges women face in achieving financial equality, particularly in leadership positions.

Job stereotypes, deeply rooted in arbitrary societal norms, significantly restrict women's career opportunities. For instance, Smithsonian Magazine has documented that while women were historically predominant in early computing roles, viewed similarly to secretarial work, the industry's evolution towards higher complexity and pay reclassified it as a male-dominated field. This shift from women being the primary "computer girls" to a male-dominated tech industry exemplifies how stereotypes arbitrarily confine women to specific roles and sectors, limiting their professional scope based on gender rather than ability.

 Dismantling gender biases at workplaces

Organisational policies are key to creating an inclusive, non-discriminatory workplace environment. This means implementing policies that not only recognise the existence of biases but actively work to eliminate them. Flexible work hours – which studies find are demanded by both men and women – can help those women who are involved in caregiving activities. Similarly, equitable pay, and fair parental leave policies (as opposed to maternal leaves) are foundational.

Another aspect is to initiate cultural and mindset shifts. This involves making people aware of their unconscious and internalised biases. Training and sensitisation sessions may help to a certain extent, but it is also necessary to create room for more direct discussions on biases. Inculcating skills such as active listening can help employees resolve conflicts and allow women to directly raise their concerns within smaller teams.

To mitigate gender biases in hiring, companies should refine job descriptions using neutral language, employ blind applications and skills assessments to focus on abilities over demographics and leverage data-driven tools to identify diverse candidates without bias. Ensuring structured interviews with diverse panels can further ensure fairness by removing prejudices from the line of questioning. These strategies collectively contribute to a more inclusive recruitment process, emphasising skill over gender.

Mentorship is a powerful tool in the professional development of women. It provides them with guidance, encouragement, and access to networks that might otherwise be unavailable. Women leaders acting as mentors can share their journeys, challenges, and strategies for navigating professional landscapes dominated by gender biases. By seeing more women in leadership roles, aspiring professionals can find inspiration and a clearer path to their advancement. However, eliminating unconscious gender bias can also be driven when both leaders and mentees are exposed to diverse perspectives encompassing the entire gender spectrum. Having multiple mentors can challenge and dilute the impact of gender stereotypes by showcasing a broad spectrum of successful pathways and leadership styles, not confined to a single narrative or gendered expectation.

Achieving workplace gender equality requires a comprehensive strategy to eliminate deep-rooted biases that limit women's advancement. Tackling issues from the "broken rung" to enforcing fair policies is essential for creating an inclusive workplace. By removing these gendered barriers, organisations not only champion gender equality but also tap into diverse perspectives that amplify innovation and financial success.

Naghma Mulla is CEO of EdelGive Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.

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