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What’s really holding women back?

Mar 05, 2021

We all know that gender diversity is great for business. But how can organisations implement it in a meaningful way? Susan Dwyer details three main stumbling blocks faced by women in the workplace, and how they can be overcome.

Gender diversity is vital to any workplace. Not just because it is a praiseworthy goal but because it makes absolute business sense. While most organisations have good intentions in this regard, a lot of them are struggling to act and are not getting the results required to create any change.

Based on my six years in recruitment, I have found that there are three key factors holding women and gender equality back in the workplace.

1. Lack of role models

“You cannot be what you cannot see.”

There is a lot of research to show that female mentors are key influences on women’s success. Senior women demonstrate that it is possible to reach the top of an organisation, and that the business values the talent and contributions of women.

The presence of women in leadership positions and the opportunity to network with them is imperative in helping advance women in their careers.

Without role models, it can be a very lonely journey. It makes navigating your career so much more difficult than it needs to be. We must come together, no matter our gender, to make sure we are doing our part to make changes to ensure all voices are being heard.

2. Corporate culture

Corporate culture is seen as one of the biggest barriers to female leadership. This is partly a legacy issue. Many company structures were originally created to suit the lifestyles of men at a time when women made up a smaller portion of the workforce. Many of organisations are now failing to make changes to modernise the way we work. 

Organisations must start looking closely at their underlying beliefs about gender. Does management encourage people to talk about gender at work? How does the organisation define and reward good leadership? One of the main reasons companies are losing out on good female talent is because the culture isn't right and it needs to be addressed. 

3. Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is very much alive. Bias can creep in at every level of the recruitment process, from the make-up of a selection panel to the timing of an interview.

At first, these actions seem innocent, but we know they have a direct impact on diversity. We know that interviewers are more likely to question women on their ability to balance work and family life rather than men. We know that a woman’s commitment to the job is also often called into question.

Job specifications can also be a problem. We know women won’t put themselves forward for a role if they don’t meet each and every entry criteria – unlike men. Companies writing these long and over-complicated job specifications are turning women off from applying. If companies wish to attract more female talent, they need to rethink how they write their job descriptions.

Making change

Change is most definitely possible, and I’m feeling optimistic about it. Kamala Harris, the first woman in history – and a woman of colour – has become the Vice President of the United States. It was a ground-breaking moment, not just for women in America, but for women everywhere. If she can manage to break down the gigantic barriers facing her, then why can’t we all?

With increased awareness, these challenges can be overcome, but it must be a joint effort. Everyone of all genders must commit to making small changes to create transformation.

Susan Dwyer is the Founder of Rise Up Women.