09 Mar, 2023

The HR Guide to Being a Woman’s Ally in 2023 (and Beyond)

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Written by
Gifted Team
Women in society are arguably better represented than at any time in history. Women out graduate men throughout the western world, women’s soccer attracts global audiences and celebrity fanfare, women prime ministers have and do lead federations and states in New Zealand, Italy and the EU.

Despite much progress made, workplace disparities affecting women remain - some of which fester undetected or, worse, ignored. Narratives of advocacy assert that HR teams and employers need to do more and women’s voices in the workplace need to be heard. While this rings true, HR teams have heard it all before. It’s a positive statement of intent, but what are the practical answers?

Part of the challenge is overcoming a widespread perception that gathered employee feedback won’t lead to meaningful action. Simply encouraging women to speak up won’t cut it and employers must back words with tangible action and outcomes that demonstrate an open commitment to change. Then, the quiet voices will get a little louder.

Here are some of the hurdles facing employers and HR teams on the path to better championing women at work in 2023.

Women empowerment challenges facing employers in 2023

Let’s zoom in on some of the findings from McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report 2022, conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org.

The study collected information from more than 40,000 employees across 333 organizations employing more than 12 million people.

Women leaders want to progress, but they face more resistance than men

As mentioned, women are outnumbering men in universities worldwide with women being one-third more likely to apply for further education courses. The ambition and drive are clearly there. Once in the workplace, however, women’s authority is more often stifled and undermined than that of male peers, often depleting confidence and career momentum. That’s all according to the data produced in the McKinsey report above.

What does this mean for HR teams?

What’s key is that silence isn’t the problem here - at least in some cases. McKinsey reports that ”Women leaders are also more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.”

Undoubtedly, many people leaders and HR teams in close contact with these kinds of women are aware of the issue. Preaching to HR to ‘be women’s allies’ isn’t enough - especially given that women in HR departments - trying to represent the issue in the boardroom - likely face similar resistance to personal progress, mainly from male counterparts.

In this case, Gifted is looking at the men in the room. Men in leadership positions who are aware of this issue - in management, HR and C-level - can’t remain silent when witnessing career-blocking transgressions of women coworkers. It’s arguable that silence equals complicity and a little bravery in parting with male in-group pandering will go a long way toward creating a new standard.

The ‘broken rung’ remains unfixed

The ‘broken rung’ refers to the first step up to the managerial level that’s often harder to reach for women. According to the McKinsey study findings, “for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted”

Although companies invest heavily in developing female talent, all the attention doesn’t always translate to more promotions.

Women leaders are seeking a different culture of work

According to McKinsey’s findings, women leaders are more likely to leave an employer in pursuit of greater flexibility with working arrangements.

What does this mean for HR teams?

HR teams and ‘people’ people can’t solve this one alone. But they can leverage relationships and influence out of reach to female leaders seeking working flexible arrangements.

Part of that means first offering proof of concept and making the case with sourceable data that hybrid working can actually be a business benefit. Retention, productivity, revenue. Moving to hybrid working can bring upticks in key business areas. HR teams that believe this should be braver in representing female leaders heading for the door.

The option to work remotely is especially important to women. 

Closely related to point two above, the McKinsey-LeanIn study data shows that only 10% of women prefer mostly on-site work and many women cite remote and hybrid roles as a major reason for staying or leaving.

What’s interesting is that these preferences seem to be about more than just flexibility. According to McKinsey, women with hybrid working arrangements experience greater psychological safety. Particularly women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities—groups who typically face more demeaning and othering behavior.

What does this mean for HR teams?

Just because certain women employees want to spend less time in the office, doesn’t mean they prefer to work from home. If these findings are anything to go by, requests for flexible working might be a symptom of deeper issues.

In these circumstances, HR teams need to engage tactfully and empathetically with employees to uncover those under-the-skin themes. In this way, it may be possible to evidence and highlight systemic cultural issues that can be addressed at the root to create an environment women colleagues actually want to be a part of.

Intersectional women empowerment challenges facing employers in 2023

Let’s turn our attention to the McKinsey study findings on the institutional disempowerment of women from an intersectional perspective.

  • Latinas and Black women are less likely than women of other ethnicities to report their manager supports their career development. 
  • Asian women and Black women are less likely to have strong allies on their teams. They are also less likely than white women to say senior colleagues have taken sponsorship actions like advocating for a pay rise.
  • Latinas and Asian women are more likely than women of other ethnicities to have colleagues comment on their culture or nationality—for example, by asking where they’re “really from.”
  • LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities report experiencing more demeaning and “othering” microaggressions and are more likely to have colleagues comment critically on their appearance.
  • Women with disabilities often have their competence questioned and are significantly more likely to have their judgment challenged in their area of expertise.

What does this mean for HR teams? These insights highlight just how nuanced the challenges of female disempowerment at work really are. Many of the toxic behaviors outlined above are subtle, but also cumulative with profound impact on women’s psychological safety and career development.

Worse still, because these kinds of infringements are so subtle, they often go unnoticed or become normalized as insignificant. The problem becomes compounded when the victims become silent minorities, uninspired by the apparent lack of caring around them. 

HR teams must do the legwork to gain enough trust so that employees feel comfortable offering this kind of candid feedback. That means calling out these behaviors wherever they’re noticed. It also means opening a dialogue of empathy for sourcing feedback.

Even when that happens, however, the next challenge is having employees believe that cultural and behavioral change will actually come.

Over half of employees perceive employee engagement surveys to be less about outcomes and more about optics and revenue

According to a different study from employee engagement experts, Inpulse:

  • 54% of employees don’t believe their employer will take action as a result of employee engagement surveys
  • Those who don’t believe action will be taken are less engaged at work; on average

What this says is that there’s a deep-seated cynicism among employees about employers’ ability and/or willingness to act on data they’re presented with.

For managers and HR teams trying to do their best by everyone, it’s a wake-up call. Merely being seen to be measuring women’s happiness doesn’t improve it. It’s about follow-through

Closing thoughts: your HR people are your culture builders, but they can’t do it alone

Ultimately, reaching new milestones in championing women at work will require selflessness and bravery - from both men and women throughout business divisions.

It all comes down to recognition

  • Recognition that: although HR must play a big role, it’s not their challenge alone to solve. Business leaders - both men and women - can help HR teams be powerful women’s allies by maintaining closer communication to continually read the room and adapt change incentives. 
  • Recognition that: measuring women's employee satisfaction doesn’t improve it. Your company survey must be backed by tangible action that leads to measurable outcomes - and those outcomes must continually be celebrated.
  • Recognition that: many of the forces still holding some women back in the workplace simmer quietly out of sight or hide in full view. Apparently benign behaviors can have a profound cumulative impact.

It also comes down to the recognition that female talent needs to be constantly recognized, nurtured and reinforced. Know a woman colleague who’s doing great work and championing other women? Make their day by giving them a little customized recognition - it could be long overdue.

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