Where are all the women?

Posted on March 30, 2019 by Heather

Sitting in a senior leaders’ conference recently, I looked around me and realized that I was surrounded by men. I counted the women. There were 9 of them. And 37 men. Someone asked me later – where are the women? How come this is such a male dominated group?

I’ve been dealing with gender bias, and working towards equality for women since I was a student, 26 years ago. It hit me then that we still have a very long way to go.

Where are the women? I’ll tell you where they are.

They are battling to get their first jobs … bright eyed young things, excited about their journey ahead.

Women tend to outnumber men at entry level in many companies.

They are planning weddings – some of them are working but some have resigned from work either because they feel that planning such an event is a full-time job, or because their future husbands (and/or their husbands’ families) don’t want them to work after marriage.

They are planning their families, still excited, still believing that they can really have kids and a career.

3-4 years into work, the male female balance becomes roughly equal.

They’ve had their first child and they are stuck at home, unable to find a job which allows them to balance family and work life. They may be plagued by confidence issues – going back to work after having a baby is tough. The longer these women stay at home, searching for that elusive opportunity, the more “irrelevant” they appear in the eyes of the (often) male dominated hiring teams.

5-6 years into work, men start to outnumber women. And it gets more male dominated the higher up you go.

There are a number of reasons why our workplaces remain so unbalanced. Here are a few of them :

#1 Most workplaces are inflexible for women

The Indian advertising industry, and many others, crank up late in the day, and continue into the night. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the fact that we feel it’s our god given “creative right” to saunter in late to work, to the fact that in India most young people still live with their parents. It’s usually much more exciting to work late surrounded by your friends, with free AC and free food, than to leave at 6pm and go home to Mum and Dad.

However, for working mothers, particularly mothers with young children, working late every single day is just not an option. Most young children sleep by around 8 or 9pm. Considering that commutes from offices can take an hour or more, women are often forced to choose between being in the office or seeing their children before they fall sleep.

The irony is, that women are great multitaskers. Women with children are even better. Without the ability to keep several balls in the air, our families will fall apart. To give them their due credit, men often do want to “do their part”, and will step up when asked. But the biggest chunk of the co-ordination, the “emotional burden” as it is known, and the energy invested in ensuring that the home runs like clockwork falls squarely on the woman’s shoulders.

The concept of being productive by sitting in the office for hours is outdated. Yes we need periods when we can collaborate, meet in person, and generate the kind of group energy which results in breakthroughs. But we can also work while commuting, after the kids sleep, in the early morning and over weekends if we need to. As long as we are focused on tasks completed, not hours clocked.

As long as we encourage people to come in late and leave late, we actively discriminate against working mothers.

We should be looking at flexible hours, part time working and even job sharing. That way we can encourage women to return to work, giving them the opportunity to care for their children and their clients.

#2 – Confidence issues

Many women returning to the workplace suffer from crises of confidence.

We all know how tough it is to return back to work after a 2-week vacation, let alone a 6-month (or more) maternity break. The world moves on, we feel outdated and irrelevant, we have “baby brain” and we are suffering from lack of sleep.

If we are able to bring women back to work, coaching them back to confidence must be an important part of the mix. Many women need coaching just to find the confidence to apply for jobs, and to feel that they will be taken seriously after a career or maternity break. Others need “on the job” coaching.

Heard of the “imposter syndrome”? It’s real, and particularly so for women. Men in the corporate space tend to “fake it til they make it”. Research has shown that they will accept a promotion with only 60% of the required skillsets or competencies. Women, on the other hand, tend to hold back, waiting until they are 100% or even over qualified before taking on a new role.

Women often feel like imposters, even when they are brilliant at what they do, and have an enormous amount of experience.

I offer coaching support services (often pro bono) to women looking to return to the workplace. Just a session or two can really help them to find that inner confidence and resolve to step back into the corporate world.

#3 – Internal biases

In many countries, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, gender or background. A potential employer can be sued even for asking leading questions such as “do you plan to get married?” In India, it is considered perfectly acceptable (and indeed sometimes necessary) to establish whether a woman is a “risk” for 6 month maternity leave.

As an HR Head in India, I have had to counsel my own internal recruitment teams against asking such leading questions. “But why would we want to hire someone who will take 6 months off?” they ask.

There’s a reason why developed markets make it difficult for potential employers to ask these kinds of questions. It makes it way harder for women to get jobs, and it makes assumptions which are often incorrect. Women are perfectly capable of working right up until their delivery date (assuming they have a problem free pregnancy) and resuming work, from home, soon after the child is born, if they wish to. Newborns sleep a lot! And most people have perfectly adequate wifi connections and smartphones.

Men cannot (yet) bear children. And so this kind of discrimination will ALWAYS result in unbalanced, male dominated workplaces.

#4 Too few role models

Because there are fewer women at the top, there aren’t many role models to go around. We need more examples of women who are balancing work and family life, who are being promoted and reaching senior positions. And we need those women to support and mentor other women.

It is our responsibility as experienced women, who have fought the corporate battles and survived, to help others to do so, and to change systems which work against women. We need to call out the conscious and subconscious biases. We need to leave the office at 5pm sharp to read bedtimes stories to our kids (without feeling guilty). We need to demonstrate that we can multitask and deliver from anywhere, and keep the focus on productivity rather than being seen to be sitting at our desks. And we need to recognize that other women need that extra bit of support, particularly when it comes to managing issues of confidence, being heard, and managing work and home lives.

#5 The pressure of the “always on” culture

The advent of technology should be making it easier for us to juggle our lives. On the contrary, it is making it far more difficult. We are expected to be responsive at all times, and mails and messages fly late into the night. This is a particularly Indian / Asian phenomenon – Western countries tend to have a far more developed sense of personal space, and a clear delineation between work and play (ever tried to get a response from a British colleague after 6pm? You’d better wait until the morning).

Technology should be liberating us, but in fact it is constraining us. I often catch myself looking at my phone when I’m sitting with my kids chatting about my day. I switch it off during the one hour bedtime story and cuddle time. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that, but many women can’t.

The “always on” culture is resulting in enormous stress, and particularly so for women. A recent study has shown that women bear the brunt of workplace stresses, often excascerbated by an expectation to be connected 24/7.

Bring back all the women (or better still, don’t let them leave!)

We can reverse the trend of the female drain. But it must start with some radical changes to the way we work. We need to take some brave steps. Steps which take us outside our comfort zone.

I’ve just hired someone in my team who will be working an 8.30am – 3pm day, and who will then switch on again once her 8 year old is sleeping. I know she’ll be as, if not more, productive than many others who work “full time”. I want to be able to offer more and more women such flexible working arrangements. And I hope to lead the corporate change, and really revolutionise our workforce.

PS – do be in touch if you’re a woman looking to return to work, who would like a pro bono “confidence builder” chat or coaching session

The postings on this site are my own thoughts and opinions and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of The Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. or MullenLowe Lintas Group or their subsidiaries or clients or brands.

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