On paper, there is no doubt that women have made great progress in the workplace – in Europe, the percentage of women represented on large company boards has almost doubled over the past five years to 25%. Women also outnumber male university graduates in 95 of 144 countries.
However, Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of ManpowerGroup South Africa, says that these high profile roles may be just an illusion of progress.
According to the latest white paper by ManpowerGroup and Right Management, titled “Women, we have a problem”, as technology continues to disrupt, and with the emergence of a skills revolution, women are feeling the biggest impact.
Behind the numbers women face a triple threat: under representation in industries poised for growth, over representation in roles threatened by automation, and stubbornly low levels of women in senior roles.
“A workplace that is seen as equally appealing to both genders is more likely to attract top talent,” explains van den Barselaar. “However, this is not always reflected in workplace gender ratios across all industries.
“While it is true that a number of companies and employers are working to understand and overcome gender inequality, this is a global issue that all businesses need to acknowledge, and look to do their part in improving the outlook for women in terms of the workplace revolution.”
The number of senior positions held by women has risen just 3% in the past five years to stand at 24%. We know that businesses with diverse workforces outperform others and are better positioned to adapt, but men and women have very different perspectives on how to help women achieve gender parity in leadership.
Women leaders know that relying on policies or practices is simply not enough and that change starts at an individual level. Leaders say gender parity is still at least a generation away – an average of 17 years.
If women aren’t self-promoting to male leaders (who are currently still in the majority) how will female leaders advance? Women cite recognition of ability as the top reason to take a senior position. Career conversations provide the perfect opportunity to reaffirm strengths and align women’s goals and motivations with the organisation’s needs. This highlights the need for leaders to commit to putting processes in place that will result in more women taking up leadership roles.
Rarely a day goes by without news of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality impacting on the workplace. A great deal has been written predicting the future, but not a lot of what has been written recognises that future employees will need new skill sets and that they will need to refresh them more often to stay employable – especially in a future working environment that includes jobs that we may not even have heard of as yet.
The life cycle of skills is shorter than ever before, and an individual’s employability will depend on their ability to demonstrate learnability — that’s the desire and ability to learn new skills to stay relevant for the long-term.
It’s up to both employers and individuals to nurture learnability and upskill. While the statistics around this are improving, there is room for improvement, with 80% of women having undergone an assessment of their skills, and 75% having had a conversation about how they can develop.
“While we cannot slow the rate of technological advancement, ongoing career conversations and investment in skills development will increase the relevance and resilience of women in the workplace,” explains van den Barselaar.
While women are more likely to be stronger networkers and more talented relationship builders than their male counterparts, their networks can be quantity over quality when it comes to their careers. Women tend to network across a wide range of people with a strong tendency to include workplace peers, family and friends.
However, women tend to be over mentored and under sponsored in the workplace, so leaders must act. What defines a sponsor versus a mentor is often misunderstood, but they are not interchangeable.
Mentors may act as a sounding board and make women feel more comfortable, but they do not help them get ahead. Sponsors develop talent and help women to get promoted. They have open conversations, help address how work gets done and the way performance is measured. Sponsors create a culture of conscious inclusion and support and consciously advocate for women in the boardroom.
For many women lack of access to a sponsor and an inability to identify an influential network is an obstacle to progression. According to the report, 84% of women have not been able to find a sponsor within their organisation.
“Forward-thinking companies must equip senior leaders to become sponsors, facilitate the movement of high potential employees and make sponsorship a critical part of their talent and organisational strategy. Not only will this bode well for business, but also for the workforce of the business – its most important asset,” says van den Barselaar.
Employers can start eradicating their gender barriers and improving their performance by conducting an objective analysis on the impact of these barriers, and then prioritising them based on their influence and inequality factor.
“Employers must take practical steps to engage employees and meet business goals. It’s clear: unless we change the culture of our businesses, begin having career conversations, addressing how work gets done and how performance is measured, women’s progress will stall,” van den Barselaar adds.