Why hiring more women won’t make the workplace fairer

Companies are focusing on equity, not just equality

March 08, 2023

When it comes to making workplaces fairer for women, there’s still a long way to go.

Take pay. The time required to close the gender pay gap has risen to 132 years from 100 years since the pandemic started, according to the United Nation’s latest Sustainable Development Goals. Full gender equality is a staggering 286 years away. Last year in the U.S. alone, working women received only $80 for every $100 a man earned.

But “if companies think they’re done when they hit a gender equality quota, they’ve hit the target but missed the point,” says Sue Asprey Price, CEO of EMEA Work Dynamics.

Providing everyone with the same resources – such as pay – aims to address equality. But it doesn’t eliminate challenges from deep-rooted biases that can impact a woman’s career, such as taking maternity leave.

These require addressing equity. An equitable workplace is one where all employees have their perspectives heard and opportunities to progress, regardless of gender, race or background.

For big companies, this is an issue they’re increasingly trying to tackle. Corporate attention to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is on the rise. The World Economic Forum’s Global Parity Alliance estimates some US$15.4 billion will be spent on DEI related efforts by 2026 – almost double the US$7.5 billion spent in 2020.

“Without that, those same people you’ve hired may not be sticking around,” Asprey Price says.

The route to the top

While the recent shift to hybrid and flexible working practices has given women greater access to work, especially working mothers, equity does not necessarily follow.

In the U.K. men outnumber women by two to one in positions of power, and no women from ethnic minority backgrounds head up any of the country’s largest 100 listed companies, according to the Fawcett Society.

In the U.S., 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men, while in Asia Pacific, Equileap found just 4% of CEOs were female. 

This disparity could be down to a “broken rung” in the career ladder. The U.N. reports more than two thirds of middle managers and supervisors are men.

“For all leaders, recognizing that the path they followed won’t be the same for everyone is vital,” says Walid Goudiard, EMEA Head of Project Delivery Services.

For women, having children is a well-known hurdle. In 2021, London’s South Bank University discovered around half of women believe maternity leave harmed their career. A recent 'careers after babies' report found the number of women in management drops 32% after having children and 44% of women end up in lower paid roles.

“As a father of five and a people manager, I’ve seen how policies that support both maternity and paternity leave are key to retaining talented employees,” says Goudiard.

Asprey Price says “to consider additional training to ensure that remote and hybrid staff feel included and that people not physically present in the workplace don’t miss out.”

Cultivating allyship

Those in privileged positions can proactively use their status so many groups, not just women, have a space for their perspectives to be heard. It’s a culture that Microsoft is building through tactics like onboarding buddies and resource groups. Critically, all employees are responsible for fostering equity, with diversity and inclusion a performance management factor.

However, traditional career pathways, such as having a mentor, can also mean those without a champion – typically individuals from more marginalized groups – may struggle to progress.

Prudential’s Global Talent Sponsorship Programme nurtures diverse talent by using a talent review process to identify promising employees, before matching them with senior executive sponsors. In 2022, over 60% of those sponsored were women.

Fixing the ladder

When it comes to being treated fairly, a combination of other demographic factors such as a woman’s age, race and class, may also influence career opportunities.

To create greater equity, Goudiard suggests that senior and middle managers be held accountable for creating diverse representation in their teams. “Managers must challenge their own choices when it comes to who they interview for jobs, consider for promotions and assign to high-profile projects,” he says.

The buy-in of senior leadership is key. In 2014, the CEO of Japanese consumer cosmetics company Shiseido made DEI a key pillar of the firm’s corporate strategy. Consequently, inclusive work policies, process redesign and upskilling resulted in a 24% increase in their ratio of women leaders and 44% of program participants were promoted to vice president or director roles.

Despite the ongoing challenges, Asprey Price remains optimistic.

“Many companies are grappling with progress, but DEI has recently accelerated up the agenda,” she says. “Businesses now realize that it’s not only the right thing to do, but that they’ll retain talent and perform better.”

Looking for more insights? Never miss an update.

The latest news, insights and opportunities from global commercial real estate markets straight to your inbox.