International Women's Day is observed every March 8 as a celebration of women and their achievements and a call-to-action for accelerating gender equity. This year's theme, #EmbraceEquity, is meant as a call for collective action on pushing gender equity forward — and arguably nowhere is that more important than within the private sector.
Research continues to show that both women and businesses — not to mention the global economy — lose out due to gender inequalities in the workplace. The most recent evidence came this week from Moody's Analytics, which found the global economy could get a $7 trillion annual boost if there were more women in the workforce and those women had equal opportunities to advance. "In other words, closing the gender pay gap wouldn’t just benefit individual women. It would also benefit everyone," observed Stephanie Hughes of Marketplace.
But such a reality is a long way off. At this rate, it will take more than 300 years to reach global gender parity in education, employment and economic opportunity, according to the most recent data from the U.N.
So, what are some measurable steps that global businesses can take to push toward gender equity in the workplace? Let's look at a few that are backed up by research and supported by working women and advocates worldwide.
Become more transparent about pay to boost gender equity and close the pay gap
The global gender pay gap has remained virtually unchanged for the past two decades, according to the International Labor Organization. While research is mixed on why that is, one evidence-based intervention has been shown to make a major difference, and that's pay transparency.
Employers that utilize salary transparency across the organization see pay inequity drop overall — whether on the basis of age, race, gender or sexual orientation. Looking at gender equity in the U.S. in particular, employers could reduce the gender pay gap by 40 percent if they embraced broad pay transparency, according to peer-reviewed research published in 2019.
“Firms are also wary of wages getting compressed and losing their best talent to competitors without transparency,” professor Tomasz Obloj of HEC Paris Business School, who co-led the study, told Wired. “But in the data, the opposite happens — there’s no exodus of superstars from organizations that become transparent, and amid the Great Resignation, we can’t apply the lens of the ’70s and ’80s, when it was enough to offer high-powered incentives.”
Move from mentorship to sponsorship
"I’m tired of hearing the oft-repeated wisdom: 'Women need to find mentors to ensure career success,'" Ruchika Tulshyan, author of "The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in The Workplace," told Diversity Woman Magazine. Women aren't lacking in professional mentors — most report having at least one mentor in their careers, with some research indicating women are even more likely to have mentors than men, Tulshyan observed.
What they really need is sponsorship, and there's a major difference. "While mentorships are often informal relationships, sponsors are advocates for a professional’s advancement within her organization," she explained. "Many strategic decisions, such as staffing an organization’s most visible projects or highest promotions, are still made informally — on golf courses or over dinner. Finding an advocate within these circles can help high-potential women and leaders of color get much-deserved access and visibility."
Indeed, research from economist and lauded inclusion expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett finds that women who receive sponsorship are 19 percent more likely to be promoted, and managers who become sponsors are more than 50 percent more likely to advance, building on prior research from the likes of Catalyst and JPMorgan Chase.
Be a family-friendly employer
Statistically speaking, women aren't paid for the majority of the work they do. Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the total time men and women spend on non-leisure activities each week — including hours at their paid jobs, as well as the time they spend on unpaid household activities like cleaning, shopping, bill-paying and childcare.
The latest findings are pretty disheartening: The average woman spends 45 percent of her working time doing the job she's actually paid for and the other 55 percent on childcare and other unpaid domestic work. That's compared to 81 percent of time on paid work and 19 percent of time on domestic work for men (and yes, that domestic work does include caring for their own children).
With this in mind, it's not surprising that challenges in balancing home and work life are a major reason why women drop out of the labor force or struggle to advance. Some pundits interpret this with a spin on the "no one wants to work anymore" mentality — essentially saying women find their family lives more important, and there's nothing employers can do about that.
But let's be honest: There is plenty employers can do, and there's plenty of data to back that up. For example, economies that provide public or subsidized child care have more than twice the percentage of women wage earners, according to the World Bank. While they wait (and hopefully lobby) for governments to do the right thing, the companies that step in with their own childcare policies will attract and retain more talented women, benefitting their own bottom lines as well as the economy.
Offering childcare benefits has been found to lower absenteeism by 30 percent and reduce turnover by 60 percent, while boosting recruitment and employee productivity, according to the Early Care and Learning Council. Research indicates that more parents of color are likely to leave the workforce due to childcare issues. As such, 90 percent of HR leaders said childcare benefits can help support a diverse workforce, and 86 percent said the same about senior care benefits, according to a 2022 survey of 500 human resources professionals across U.S. industries.
Likewise, while over 120 countries mandate paid parental leave, companies in laggard nations like the U.S. have the opportunity to stand out by offering these benefits even though they are not required: A 2020 survey of more than 440,000 working parents at 1,200 U.S. companies shows that generous paid parental leave and other parental benefits are linked to higher rates of retention and engagement.
The bottom line: Governments, employers and civil society all have a role to play in promoting gender equity
“Gender equality is growing more distant,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said during a General Assembly speech on Monday — pointing to ongoing issues such as attacks on abortion rights in the U.S. and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The widening gender gap demands collective action not only by governments, but also business and civil society leaders around the world. "It calls for gender-responsive education and skills training, algorithms that align with human rights and gender equality and investment in bridging the digital gender divide,” Guterres said. “More than ever, we need collective action by governments, civil society, the private sector and the technology community.”
Image credit: RF._.studio/Pexels
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.