The Global Gender Gap: Challenges for women in the workforce

Working for a more inclusive world for all, we take a closer look at the global gender gap and the unique issues and challenges women face in the workplace.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to take a closer look at the ongoing issues and challenges women face in the workplace. While we must acknowledge that much progress has been made, the message is clear: there is more work to be done.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 released by the World Economic Forum, no country has reached gender parity and it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. The gender index and basis for the report measures equality between men and women in four key areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

  1. Economic participation and opportunity: a measurement of gender equality in the workforce, including the gender pay gap, labour force participation, women in leadership positions, and access to professional and technical jobs.
  2. Educational attainment: a measurement of gender equality in education, literacy rates, enrollment rates, and education levels.
  3. Health and survival: a measurement of gender equality in health outcomes, life expectancy and mortality rates, and access to healthcare and reproductive rights.
  4. Political empowerment: a measurement of gender equality in political representation and decision-making, including the number of women in political leadership positions, access to political rights and opportunities, and the level of representation in decision-making bodies.

It is well documented that globally, women are underrepresented in senior positions, in certain industries and that women earn less than their male counterparts (especially true for women of colour). Perhaps lesser known is that as women move into more senior positions, the wage gap actually widens between women and men. The 2020 Swiss Earnings Structure Survey conducted by Federal Statistical Office compared salaries between male and female professionals at various levels within an organization. The study found that for lower level employees without management responsibilities, the gap between women and men was 6.87%. As the professional level advanced into more senior positions, the gap increased reaching a 16.8% gap for top, upper and middle management levels.

The same study also looked at the average overall pay gap (18%) in Switzerland (19.5% private sector, 15.1% public sector). Rather than accept this figure at face value, the study dug deeper to see if the gap could be attributed to other factors. The study found that 52.2% of the pay gap could be attributed to explainable factors such as the “endowment effect”, structural differences between the professional careers of men and women, qualifications, representation in senior positions and work in low-paying sectors. The remaining 47.8% was unexplainable and could not be attributed to any factor other than potentially discrimination. 

Lower female representation at senior levels and in certain industries (e.g., technology, engineering, finance, etc.), creates structural challenges for women. Fewer women mean fewer networking, mentorship and coaching opportunities which makes advancement more difficult. For a variety of reasons, same-sex mentorship is far more common and for many, more comfortable. For example, a male senior leader may prefer to grab after work drinks with a junior male team member instead of a female team member (and vice versa) for reasons of appearance, seemingly inappropriateness, to avoid “awkwardness” or any potential HR misconduct, etc. Affinity bias – the tendency to favour people who are similar to us - also plays into this. Senior leaders may identify with a particular junior team member because “they remind them of them when they were younger” and be more likely to provide coaching and mentorship. As a result, women are often excluded from informal networks and mentorship programs, which can provide valuable guidance and support. This can make it harder for women to navigate the workplace and develop the skills and connections needed for success, further perpetuating the issues.

Company policies and support could help address this networking and mentorship deficiency for women. Group, team or department organized social events offer the opportunity for all team members to interact in a group setting where it is expected that team members of all levels and genders mingle. This could help avoid seemingly awkward 1:1 networking and provide the opportunity for junior and senior team members to interact. Internally assigned mentor-mentee relationships based on seniority and career pathing could offer both men and women opportunities to learn and develop with the support of a more senior colleague. There are also increasing numbers of external networking organizations geared toward helping aspirational women build a network with other likeminded women. There is often a membership fee and perhaps some events which take place during working hours. In recognition that women are more challenged to build a supportive professional network (particularly with senior leaders, and particularly in certain industries), companies could support (financially, allowed worktime) female employees to participate in such groups.

Along the same lines, company policies and pay structure could bring salary alignment between women and men. Wage matrices could be designed to include salary bands for various positions with defined parameters (e.g., tenue, experience, education, performance, etc) for wage construction. This could then be supplemented by annual salary reviews by management and/or HR where the salaries of like employees are compared (and adjusted as needed) to ensure fair pay. Alternatively, companies could be transparent with salaries of all employees so that each person knows the salaries of their colleagues (and speak up if an unexplainable delta).

Another aspect of underrepresentation and disproportionate ratios of men in certain industries and in hiring/senior roles, is that it can make it more difficult for women to access and obtain the job in the first place. Male dominated industries may see higher rates of male referrals by male employees – a self-perpetuating issue. In the absence of suitable referrals, a slew of biases can also impact hiring decisions. For example, hiring managers may seek out or opt for candidates who are similar to them (affinity bias) or believe that men are better suited for the industry or role (performance bias).

Another significant bias which can impact hiring and promotion decisions is the maternity/maternal bias. Maternity bias includes the tendency to be wary of (or avoid) hiring, promoting, or offering opportunities to women due to fear that they will take maternity leave as well as the tendency to assume that women with children are less committed to their jobs and careers. Biologically disadvantaged in this respect, maternal bias can lead to discrimination against women by having preference for male candidates where this bias is non-existent. Additionally, when women take time off to have children, they may be discriminated against and find it harder to be offered new opportunities or be promoted because of this. 

A potential solution could be that equal-time parental leave is mandatory for both parents. This would eliminate the one-sided bias related to women since it can be expected that any/all parents would require leave as they start or grow their family. This however, does not address the fear that women with children would be less career-focuses and oriented. Though, perhaps if both parents take leave together, they grow as equal co-parents instead of the stayed-home parent becoming the primary caregiver and alpha parent. Studies have shown that at all levels, women are more likely than men to be responsible for most or all of their family’s housework and caregiving. Perhaps if male partners assumed more responsibility at home, they would be less inclined to assume a women would be more family-focused and less career-focused after kids. Though, the inclination to believe women after children are less career-focused is a core challenge of maternal bias and cannot be stated as fact.

In attempt to address underrepresentation and the vast issues stemming from this one issue alone, many governments and companies have resorted to diversity quotas (target participation levels for underrepresented groups). While the need for and effectiveness of diversity quotas is a topic of debate, it cannot be ignored that diversity quotas have resulted in more women in leadership roles.

Proponents of diversity quotas argue that they can help to address the systemic barriers and biases that have historically limited women's access to leadership positions and other opportunities. By setting targets for the representation of women and other underrepresented groups, organizations can signal their commitment to diversity and inclusion and prioritize efforts to address gender imbalances. This can help to increase the pool of qualified female candidates and create a more level playing field for women in the workplace.

Opponents of diversity quotas argue that they can be viewed as tokenistic and may actually perpetuate stereotypes and biases. Quotas may lead to the perception that women are being hired or promoted simply to meet a target, rather than on the basis of merit. This can create resentment among employees and may lead to a backlash against diversity efforts. Additionally, some argue that quotas can undermine the principle of meritocracy and may actually harm the career prospects of women by perpetuating the perception that they are not as qualified as men.

In direct contrast to this argument that women are being promoted for diversity rather than merit, a 2017 study by McKinsey found “a strong correlation between the presence of women in company top management and better financial results”. The study analyzed 300 companies around the world and found a difference in return on equity of 47% between the companies with the most women on their executive committees versus those with none, and a 55% difference in operating results. Certainly such outcomes can only be attributed to qualified individuals bringing in new perspectives and ideas and not quota-filling placeholders.

Quotas seem to support women moving into more senior roles, but the biases and stereotypes still cause friction. In addition to the already discussed challenges and biases, women are also faced with gender biases and stereotypes, approval biases and performance biases. Women are often subject of subtle forms of microaggression or sexism, such as being talked over in meeting, having their ideas dismissed or having their success attributed to diversity. Stereotyping and performance biases lead to the assumption or belief that women are less capable or less interested in certain topics, fields or positions and that the abilities of men are superior. Complicating matters further, when “male characteristics”, such as being assertive, competitive, or self-confident, are exhibited by women, those women may be met with disapproval from colleagues and team members. 

Presumably, the ideal scenario is that diversity quotas do not exist because they are not required – all groups are fairly represented without quotas. However, this has historically not been the case: a quick glance at past and present shows a very different picture for women in the workforce (in terms of representation) pre and post quotas. While fair representation is still underway, it is clear that something needed to change, and quotas seemed to be the best option. 

In terms of sexism and stereotyping, the solution here is simple but implementation requires significant reframing. We need to move past the antiquated notions of gender roles. Good ideas, career ambitions and skill are not gender specific. It is important that all colleagues are treated fairly and managers should ensure all team members have the opportunity to have their voice and ideas heard. 

Finally, an easily overlooked challenge is the “no bias bias” (or meta-bias). This refers to the idea that people may believe that they are unbiased and treat everyone equally, but their actions and decisions may be influenced by unconscious biases. This bias can be particularly hazardous as it can take the form of any or all of the biases, but the individual is unaware. Likely, this is also an incredibly common state.

While not an exhaustive list, it should be clear that there are many ongoing issues and challenges for women in the workforce. The issues are global, complex and multifaceted with no simple, perfect solution. Understanding and recognizing that these issues persist, acting as an agent for positive change and intervening discriminatory thoughts or actions is critical in closing the gender gap. By working together, we can create a more equitable and inclusive world for all.