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Leaders Removing Glass Ceilings – How Leaders Can Foster Gender Equity

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The recent global pandemic has challenged many across the globe and has taught us several key lessons - one of which is the power of collective action and resilience in combatting a problem. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, the same very basic principle of having a united front may help achieve gender parity in the workplace.

Despite some progress, gender inequities continue to persist in 2020. While such differences may be perceived as a “women’s issue” that needs to be addressed only by women, evidence suggests otherwise. Even while having similar qualifications, ambitions, abilities, and doing all the right stuff, women continue to experience different outcomes -  suggesting collective action may be the answer to speed up the progress in achieving gender equity.

Some of us may simply not know how to help when it comes to gender inequities-we may not see how such disparities manifest themselves in the workplace. As leaders what can we do?

Setting the Tone as a Leader for Inclusivity

Leader behaviors, both good and bad, tend to trickle-down the organization – they can be contagious.  Establishing the tone as the leader to create and maintain a gender-equitable organization, would encourage other members to do the same. Leaders’ actions can be instrumental as some organizational members may consider they do not have a say in the matter, nor that the best course of action would be to watch (and perhaps cheer) from the sidelines as women seek to shatter the glass ceilings.

However, research on psychological standing points to the critical role of leaders: it suggests clear communication can help increase the engagement of organizational members, who may otherwise refrain from participating in gender-parity initiatives, thinking it is not “their business” or they do not “have a place” in the conversation.

Indeed, research on executive selection into the upper echelons of organizations, where women have been historically underrepresented, suggests predecessors can play an important role in having a gender-inclusive gatekeeping at the apex of organizations that facilitate the success of women CEOs. Commitment to inclusion and diversity, combined with mentoring, can create the conditions of success for women. 

Ensuring Consistency

Below are three consistent areas in which may help foster a gender-equitable organization:

  • Consistency in distributing rewards and balance of consequences sticks and carrots: One area of disparity includes rewards and consequences. Despite some progress, there is a general understanding that women tend to receive lower rewards in terms of wages, bonuses, and promotions, and increased levels of scrutinization such as higher likelihood of dismissal. As a leader, establishing and communicating clear and objective standards and making sure allocation decisions are made in a consistent and gender-neutral manner can help. It is important for managers to pay attention to the extent which they differentiate the quality of their relationship and their resources (time, attention, information) based on performance-related outputs and contributions – when not justified by such criteria, differentiation may be perceived as unfair.  

  • Consistency in responding to (making attributions about) similar behaviors. Another area of disparity includes how we may respond differently (likely unconsciously) to men and women exhibiting the exact same behavior. One such example is emotional displays. For instance, men who express anger in professional settings are conferred higher status and their emotional reactions are attributed to external situations. On the flip side, women who display anger are conferred lower status as their reactions are perceived to be internally motivated – leading to attributions such as “she is out of control” or “she is an angry person.”

    Another example would be altruistic behavior. Engaging in such behaviors enhance the favorability of men’s evaluations (and not women’s), whereas failing to engage in such discretionary behaviors diminishes women’s (and not men’s) favorability during evaluations. Recent research suggests men feel obligated to go the extra mile when they receive favorable organizational treatment, whereas women may feel obligated even at relatively low levels of perceived organizational support.

    Other behaviors that may have different outcomes for men and women include taking the floor to talk, engaging in advice-giving or ingratiatory behavior, and self-promotion (among others). While evaluative differences may happen at a subconscious level due to stereotypical prescriptions about how men and women should behave, it nonetheless is important to make sure such (automatic) prescriptions do not influence organizational decisions - and that there is fairness in terms of rewards and acknowledgments of contributions.
  • Consistency in socializing behavior. Inclusive socializing, such as consistent interaction norms, accessibility norms, and meetings can help. Certain behaviors occur frequently enough that pop terminology such as “mansplaining”, “manterrupting”, or “bropropriating” exist to explain interaction patterns where men interrupt women or take credit for their contributions. Calling it out and discouraging it can help show how such behaviors are not condoned in the organization. In terms of equal socializing, male bonding in the workplace – i.e. male employees schmoozing with their male boss – may put women at a disadvantage in terms of promotion and pay. Some members may be more comfortable in walking into offices or initiating a water-cooler conversation than others. During these times of remote work, leaders can have an opportunity to be systematic and purposeful in establishing accessibility and meeting norms that are equitable.

The actions, and also inactions of leaders send important signals about norms of conduct in organizations. Leaders who seek to establish and reward gender-inclusive conduct can help foster collective action within their organizations that may speed up the progress in achieving gender equity. 


About the writer

Sibel Writer

Sibel Ozgen Novelli
Graduate Assistant