Conversations about workplace gender equality are receiving more airtime than ever, and as women (incrementally) move into more positions of power, the needle seems to be shifting toward a fairer workplace. But despite a few visible advances, it’s clear the needle isn’t moving quickly enough. According to the World Economic Forum, we’re still over two centuries away from achieving gender parity in our workforce, and women continue to be underrepresented at every level.
“There’s clearly a gap between the conversation and the day-to-day reality that women experience in the workplace,” Alisha Gupta, Gender Reporter for the New York Times, said while moderating a recent State of Women in the Workplace 2020 panel hosted by Fairygodboss and Luminary. Gupta pointed to research published by Fairygodboss as evidence, noting that “as many as 61 percent of women say #MeToo hasn’t changed their workplace.”
While statistics like this may be sobering, they also serve as a reminder that true progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The main onus for change should, of course, rest on organizations themselves to eliminate structural sources of inequality within their ranks. But if we’re to reach gender parity any faster, there are a few tactics we can all be trying on the individual level, too.
At the panel, held at Luminary, a women-focused collaboration hub, a few themes emerged. Here are five tactics we can all use in 2020 to get us to a fairer workplace faster.
Although there’s certainly a time and a place for involving HR, Mita Malick, Head of Diversity and Cross Cultural Marketing at Unilever and a Luminary member, believes there are countless more opportunities for bystander intervention on a smaller scale. This is especially true in situations of microaggression — like when Malick herself has been complimented in professional settings for her “good English,” despite having been born in the U.S.
"If you look at workplace trainings from the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s all about the perpetrator, but empowering the bystander is so important,” Malick told panel attendees. “We all need to be inclusive leaders and protect our culture. If there’s a microaggression that takes place, I would hope my leader would intervene rather than calling HR. Those are the moments that really count and educate people."
Leslie Grossman, Faculty Director of the Executive Women’s Leadership Program, an executive coach and Luminary member, believes that the push for progress starts with self promotion and self advocacy.
“We work hard — all of us. We keep our heads down and we wait to be recognized. And often, that doesn’t happen,” she said. “Power is not given to you. You have to take it.”
Grossman pointed to research indicating that although women and men want to move into management roles at similar rates, twice as many men ultimately do. While there are plenty of structural barriers that contribute to this pattern, Grossman believes that women must also make a greater practice of loudly and unabashedly asking for what they want. And if that feels uncomfortable at first — “well, it makes sense that it would,” she added.
“We’re not all natural born leaders,” Grossman said. “Leadership is a learned experience.”
Endorsing and growing work cultures where women can flourish also means actively avoiding the ones where they can’t. Sabrina Smith, Manager of Performance Planning & Analysis for Delta and also a Luminary member, advises treating job interviews as two-way streets.
“One aspect of the interview process that we need to be diligent about is assessing the company culture; so much comes down to culture and fit,” she said. “Reach out to people who work or worked for the company and ask for a 15-minute informational interview. It helps add context when going into the interview. And don’t be afraid to ask about the negatives — what don’t you like about the company?”
Malick agreed with Smith’s approach, adding that “chances are if they liked the company, the person will get back to you. And if they hated the company, they’ll get back to you.” Plus, it’s perfectly acceptable to “get the job first and then start your own interview process,” Malick said.
“Say, ‘I’d like to meet more people who work here. Can I come in for a day and spend time with the team?’”
James Orisini, President of the Sasha Group, is someone who’s mentored hundreds of people. At the end of the day, he says, it’s about ensuring that you work for “a person, not a company” — and using those relationships as roadmaps for your own advancement.
“Pick someone who is your champion and follow in their draft, like you would in Nascar,” he said. “Find someone who takes the time to explain why decisions are made and doesn’t just make decisions in a vacuum. And help leaders help you. If you want to be a partner, instead of going ‘why am I not a partner,’ it’s asking: ‘what will it take for me to be a partner?’ That puts the onus back on your leadership.”
Echoing the importance of building relationships with champions, Cate Luzio, Founder and CEO of Luminary, noted that, historically, gendered obstacles have kept women’s mentorship networks too small.
“Organizations need to work on developing their female talent much earlier on,” Luzio said. “In my 20-year career, I had amazing mentors and sponsors, but I didn’t wait for them to start those relationships with me. I wasn’t seeing those connections happen easily for other women, which is why I founded Luminary, because women need space to connect and collaborate.”
Ultimately, to reach a more equitable workplace for employees across gender identities, it’s going to take discomfort. And as women, Malick said we must figure out what embracing that on an individual level looks like for the sake of moving larger societal needles.
“In some places, you may have to be the only and the first woman in your role, which sometimes is an emotional burden and sometimes is an opportunity,” she said.
From Smith’s vantage point, discomfort is an inevitable side effect of growth.
“Friction is a natural part of transformation,” Smith added. “People in power are not going to easily relinquish their power, and we shouldn’t expect them to. But regardless of where you are in life, you control your own destiny — no one else does. So never be fearful.”