We’ve reached a turning point for women and power: With Kamala Harris as Vice President, Mary Barra leading the auto industry into the future with GM’s transition to electric cars, Citi’s Jane Fraser being called “The New Face of Power on Wall Street,” and Amanda Gorman’s star turn as the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, there’s no shortage of successful women to celebrate. And yet we still have so far to go. Just ask the more than 2.3 million women who have left the U.S. workforce since the pandemic started—including many earning six figures—to care for family and educate their kids.
As the economy reopens and companies transition to a new normal, there are several things leaders need to focus on so that more women can rise through the ranks and succeed.
1. Embrace more diverse leadership styles.
Women appreciate networking groups and opportunities to learn from and bolster one another. They also need champions, men and women who will give them credit for their ideas and make them part of important decisions.
But companies and their leaders shouldn’t expect women to fit the molds of the past or try to force them into a construct built for men. Let’s fix a system that has saved the best rewards for women who exhibit “male” personality traits. I believe one reason I thrived in the financial services industry earlier in my career is that I was able to embody traditionally “masculine” qualities. A two-sport, Division 1 athlete in college, I was competitive and, at times, aggressive. I spoke my mind—and still do; but not every talented woman is similar.
We can capitalize most on the benefits of gender/ethnic diversity and diversity of thought if we embrace the qualities females bring to the table. A study conducted early in the pandemic rated women as more effective leaders and suggested women may perform better in a crisis—one of many showing the value of these qualities in solving problems.
2. Put a price on gender bias in the C-suite.
It’s now widely accepted that diverse teams make better decisions, yet decision-makers still aren’t hiring diverse talent. For too many leaders, “the best person” means someone who looks just like them—the same gender, ethnicity, background, and experiences. This bias can be overcome by hitting leaders where it counts: in the wallet. Investors have realized this in recent years and are supporting more diverse boards, which set strategies and long-term goals for companies. As a result, every company in the S&P 500 now has a woman on their board. Board diversity is fast becoming table stakes; now managements must follow suit. Tying diversity goals to executive compensation is the place to start.
3. Support women in the middle of their careers.
Women tend to get stuck in middle management. Some become discouraged by limited opportunities for advancement and compensation concerns, while others feel they must choose between family and career. The American Bar Association found that the top reasons experienced women leave private law firms relate to childcare commitments, levels of work stress, and pressure to bill a large number of hours while also originating business. In other words, they need to “do it all.” Women lawyers also report being perceived as having less commitment to their career compared to their male peers and are denied or overlooked for advancement or promotion in greater numbers.
Generous parental leave, sick leave, and flexible work-hour policies send a clear message to women building their careers: “You have a future here.” By focusing on hiring, promotion, and retention efforts in middle management, fewer women will be forced to choose between family and career.
4. Pay women what they’re worth.
It’s hard to believe this needs to be said, but it does: U.S. women today make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. The gap is even wider for Black women: 63 cents when compared to men.
Twice in my career I’ve learned that men who reported to me were earning more than me. I had to advocate for myself to ensure I was appropriately compensated without negatively impacting my employees – a process that took time and a toll on my morale.
Instead of forcing women to advocate for themselves, companies should make their commitment to closing the pay gap a top priority and a recruiting tool. It’s time to get this right.
In addition, employers must not overlook the importance of “intersectionality” – famously coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways social identities overlap – a factor compounding the disadvantages experienced by women of color and/or those with fewer economic means. With so much of the current data on women in the workplace based on the experiences of white women, true, lasting progress for all women won’t be made until diverse leadership teams are in place making decisions based on improved research.
So, yes—let’s celebrate the women who break barriers and land the jobs they deserve. But as vaccines are delivered, schools reopen and life adapts to a new normal, let’s also welcome women back to a workplace that has evolved from the one so many left last year: a better workplace that values women as much as men, tackles gender barriers head on, and holds us all accountable for the progress that needs to be made.