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How Managers Can Help Women’s Equality in the Workplace

Quick, close your eyes and imagine the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Odds are you saw a man in a suit. Am I right? (Ok, maybe a hoodie if it was a tech company.)

That’s not surprising, considering that only about 14% of the top leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are occupied by women. While we have made great strides in many areas, women are still far behind in the workplace despite the fact that women are outpacing men when it comes to earning college degrees. According to this Fortune article, the wage gap won’t close until 2058 at the rate we’re going.

August 26th was Women’s Equality Day, or the 95th anniversary of women getting the vote. In honor of this occasion, let’s examine a few ways managers at any company can help create more women’s equality in the workplace:

Be conscious about diversity: We would all like to believe that diversity will just happen if we treat everyone equally, but this isn’t the case. Almost no one treats everyone equally, no matter their best of intentions. Most of us are more comfortable with others who are similar to us, which is just human nature. If you’re a guy walking into a conference room for a few minutes before a meeting it’s nice to know you can relax and talk sports vs. trying to make small talk with a female co-worker who may or may not be interested in that conversation. This bias leaks into every part of the workplace, including hiring, team formation, and promotions. And since women currently make up only 22% of senior management positions across the US, men are mostly the ones making these decisions. Until this number is more equal, we need to consciously make an effort to include more women in positions traditionally held by men. Once younger women see their more experienced peers taking on these roles, they will be encouraged to strive for them as well.

Question your own bias: Both sexes have certain attitudes towards women in the workplace. Men who are assertive are seen as powerful leaders; women who show the same attitudes are often labeled as bossy…or another “b” word. Men are often hired based on potential, whereas women are required to have proven qualifications. As a result many women are afraid to speak up or to stretch for greater responsibility. Managers should consciously examine their negative responses to female employees before they react—would you be responding the same way to Joe as you are to Jane? When HR sends you resumes, try to look at the content and make a decision about whether to interview based on the experience and skills listed before you even look at the name at the top. Pay close attention to whether your opinion changes after seeing “Michelle” where you expected to see “Michael.”

Stand up for your co-workers: Next time you see something, say something, whether you’re a man or a woman. Many times women get interrupted in meetings, left out, or belittled in business conversations. Usually the offending party does not even realize what they are doing. Saying something like, “I have something to add as well, but I’d like Samantha to be able to finish her point from earlier” after someone has interrupted is a polite way to point out the behavior while showing support for a female colleague that can bolster her confidence.

Understand gender differences: Men and women are usually brought up learning very different messages about acceptable behavior. Men are taught to take what they want, while women are taught to ask politely. Men are taught to be loud and assertive; women are taught to speak only when called on. Women say “we” even if it means “I;” men say “I” even if it means “we.” As women, we have to work to unlearn some of these lessons in order to be successful in the workplace. But the workplace can learn some lessons from us, too. It’s respectful to let others speak. It’s nice to share credit with your team. These are actually traits of great managers. Try not to value the volume of someone’s voice over what they actually contribute to the team and the company.

Don’t deny the problem: If you’re a male (especially a white male!) in the workplace, it’s easy to say that you think everyone is treated equally. It’s hard for those who don’t experience discrimination to see it readily. Sexism and racism are usually not blatant or intentional; they live and thrive in everyday speech and actions that seem totally innocuous. If you’re a manager concerned about making sure you provide an equal working environment, talk to your female employees. Ask about their concerns and how you can make things better. By addressing the problem rather than ignoring it, you’re already becoming part of the solution.

It’s easy for the lack of women in leadership positions to lead others to believe that we are just not cut out for them. This is a vicious circle which starts with an observation on the status quo and then perpetuates it with action. Let’s remember that 50 years ago no one would have said that they thought a black man could be president of the United States, let alone one that served two terms. Hopefully it will not take another 50 years for that CEO in your mind’s eye to be a woman, at least half of the time.

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