Women in the Workforce: What Decade is This?

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of Paper --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It has been an extraordinary week for news about women in the workforce, with events that make me wonder if this is the 1970s, or closer to 2020. On Monday, I was aghast to hear comments from Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump when asked what he thought his daughter Ivanka should do if faced with the type of alleged sexual harassment described by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson regarding former Fox News Chairman Richard Ailes. “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company, if that was the case,” he said.[i] Never mind that since the 1980s, after the Meritor vs. Vinson court case, it has been common practice for companies to promote zero tolerance harassment policies, including advising women that, if they cannot stop the harassing behavior themselves or didn’t feel safe doing so, to take it up with their supervisors or Human Resources.

Recommending, instead, that a woman move on to another company puts the burden on the woman!

On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s son Eric, while trying to explain his father’s statements from the previous day, made it worse when he suggested on the CBS This Morning that a strong woman, like his sister Ivanka, “Wouldn’t allow herself to be, you know, subjected to it.” Gretchen Carlson responded on Twitter, “Sad in 2016 we’re still blaming the victim.”

On Wednesday, we saw what the workforce of the future might look like if companies don’t close the gender pay gap on their own. Massachusetts’ Republican governor Charlie Baker signed a bi-partisan bill that makes it illegal in Massachusetts to ask job applicants about their salaries before offering them a job.[ii] This is an effort to strengthen the pay of women by not allowing companies to set a new hire’s pay based on pay history, which is a common practice. Many studies report that women’s pay for similar work is on average less than men’s. Massachusetts is the first state in the union to pass such a provision.

On Thursday, allegations surfaced that the Governing Body for U.S.A. Gymnastics, a famous Olympic organization, ignored complaints that prominent Olympic coaches were sexually abusing athletes, some of whom were children.[iii]  Ugh!!!

As an HR professional, when I am asked about sexual harassment, I offer this advice.

Companies need to have a work force policy in place that requires zero tolerance for any type of harassment, whether based on sex, race, skin color, national origin, sexual orientation, same sex or female-on-male harassment. Companies also need to provide regular communication and training to explain and promote their zero tolerance cultures. I remind companies that it is not IF they will receive a harassment complaint or charge but, in our culture and legal environment, WHEN. Besides, would you want your son or daughter working in a hostile work environment?

All known complaints of sexual harassment need to be objectively investigated. In some cases, harassment may not have been intended or may be a misunderstanding. But, let’s be absolutely clear, many women are harassed today as if it were still the 1970s. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 25% of women face sexual harassment in the workplace and many are loath to report it.[iv] Many CEOs lately, and not just Roger Ailes, have departed after bad behavior in the workplace, including: Darren Huston of Priceline, Dov Charney of American Apparel, Brian Dunn of Best Buy, Kenneth Melani of Highmark, Stephan MacMillan of Stryker, and Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard, to name a few.[v] Sexual harassment is a serious issue. Telling women to move on to another employer is, well, so 1970s.

Should we care deeply about women’s successful participation in the workforce?

Most certainly Yes! Here’s why. The presence of women in the workforce drives higher business outcomes and financial performance. Men and women working together deliver better business results. Consider:

  1. The McKinsey Global Institute, estimates that women’s full participation in the workforce in identical circumstances to men would add $2.1 trillion the U.S. economy.[vi]
  2. The Peterson Institute for International Economics and professional services firm EY found that companies with at least 30% female leaders had net profit margins up to six percent higher than companies with no women in the top ranks[vii].
  3. First Round Capital published a study on its first ten years of funding start-ups. The first of their ten findings is that their investment in companies with at least one female founder were meaningfully outperforming their investment in start-ups with all-male teams. Companies with a female founder performed 63% better than their investments with all-male founding teams. They go on to write that the top 10 investments of all time based on value created for investors, three of those teams have at least one female founder.[viii]
  4. Economists from MIT and George Washington University looked at eight years of a firm’s revenue data and employee surveys that measured satisfaction, cooperation, morale and attitudes towards diversity, including gender diversity. Revenue figures showed that the diverse teams were highly more productive and better performing, even though employees on more diverse teams reported lower levels of happiness, trust and cooperation.[ix]
  5. Belgian Study Researchers at the Paris School of Economics and Unviersite’ Libre de Bruxelles found that gender diversity can positively impact productivity, profits and wages in some industries, but not others. Firms in high technology/high knowledge sectors are more likely to benefit from gender diversity than those in more traditional sectors.[x]
  6. McKinsey and Company looked at the diversity of executive board composition (including gender diversity) and the returns on equity (ROE) and margins on earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) of 180 publicly traded companies in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States over the period from 2008 and 2010. They found that the companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity had 53% higher ROE then companies in the bottom quartile and EBIT that was 14% higher, on average, than those of the least diverse companies.[xi] Other research shows that diverse teams are more effective and productive than homogeneous teams.

You have daughters and sisters.

If these empirical studies are not convincing enough for you, I suggest you consider the work experience of your spouse, sisters and daughters. Do you want them working in a hostile environment?  At a higher morale level, the United States has a founding credo that we are all created equal with certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Women have certainly made big strides in the workforce, but only up to a certain level. Women now graduate from college in record numbers, have historically high labor force participation rates, are moving up the career ladder, and do better at earning equal pay for equal work. But, they still face pay disparity, a glass ceiling, expectations to raise the kids, and, as this week shows, some stubborn 1970s attitudes about harassment.

What Should Employers Do?

Maintain zero tolerance for harassment policies, provide regular communication and training on the issue, and be vigilant. Lead by example.

Beyond that, create a workforce where men and women thrive equally.

Here are my recommendations:

Drive out bias, particularly in hiring and promotion decisions. Use objective criteria, based on job competencies developed by analytics, not just opinions. Use validated, reliable tests and assessments that do not discriminate based on sex, race or age. Train everyone involved in job interviewing and maintain evaluations of the interviewers.

Regarding pay disparity, set a 90% bottom to your salary grades. Don’t make offers to new-hire salaries below that threshold. Keep analytics and it will help you determine if your company has a bias, either intentional or unintentional. If someone not on a performance improvement plan and is below that bottom threshold, see if there is objective evidence to justify it, based on performance, education level and experience. If not, move their pay up.

Provide job training and career development so everyone feels included. Make sure your managers provide developmental feedback and coaching to every employee on a regular basis. Run mentoring programs and offer learning and training options to employees as they begin new roles and at critical junctures in their careers. Training focused on developing job competencies generally have a good ROI. Invest in team effectiveness training to improve communication and empathy skills among team members. This is the secret to successful teams.[xii]

Offer Flexible Work Arrangements. While women strongly advocate for this, it is no longer only a women’s issue. Today’s telecommuter is just as likely to be a man. I have personally set up comprehensive flexible work arrangements, where as much as 45% of the workforce could work from home or the customer’s site, based on their job duties and required technology. I have documented increases in productivity, morale, and retention as well as strong cost savings to the company. Just as importantly, employees have more flexibility for work/life integration.

Offer paid paternity leave benefits for both men and women. Studies show that Millennial men and women demand this benefit. Provide workers on paternity or elder care leaves with off and on ramps. As employees return from leaves don’t let their salaries drop below their pre-leave ratio to market pay levels.

Promote managers who can lead with vision and empathy for the workforce of 2020, and who have the intellectual and leadership agility to lead teams from diverse backgrounds, while managing performance and driving results.

CEOs, speak openly that your company’s zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and lead by example. Moreover, always speak with passion about your vision, the company’s purpose, its business model and strategies, and invite your workforce to participate in the journey. Reward your employees and teams who do, and you will seldom have a bad quarter!

What is your company doing to create an invigorating, exciting work environment for women and men? Join the conversation.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on talent management, leadership development and coaching, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visitwww.victorhrconsultant.com. For innovation visit www.InnovationOne.US.

[i] Kirsten Powers (8:35 PM. EDT August 1, 2016). “Trump says he hopes Ivanka would quit if she got harassed,” USA Today. Retrieved at http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/08/01/ailes-trump-sexual-harassment-fox-news-women-gretchen-kelly-greta-news-column/87915454/.

[ii] “Job Seekers Need Not Reveal Their Salaries,” The New York Times, Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

[iii] Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evan, (August 4, 2016) “A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases. INDYSTAR. http://www.indystar.com/story/news/investigations/2016/08/04/usa-gymnastics-sex-abuse-protected-coaches/85829732/.

[iv] “Women in the American Workforce,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Labor. Found at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/reports/american_experiences/women.cfm.

[v] George Petras (2:19 PM, EDT, April 28, 2016), “CEOs depart after bad behavior,” USA Today. Found at http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/04/28/ceos-behaving-badly/83641214/.

[vi] McKinsey Global Institute. The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equity in the United States, April 2016. Found at: http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/the-power-of-parity-advancing -women’s-equality-in-the-united-states.

[vii] Valentina Zarya (Feb. 8, 2016, 4:52 PM EST) “New Proof That More Female Bosses Equals Higher Profits,” Fortune, Found at http://fortune.com/2016/02/08/women-leadership-profits/?iid=sr-link9.

[viii] “First Round 10 Year Project (2015), First Round Capital. Found at http://10years.firstround.com/.

[ix] Rachel Emma Silverman (December 15, 2014) “Men and Women at Work: Unhappy, But Productive,” The Wall Street Journal. Found at: http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2014/12/15/men-and-women-at-work-unhappy-but-productive/?mod=WSJ_Management_At_Work&mod=wsj_valettop

[x] Andrea Garnero, Francois Rycs (2013) “The heterogeneous effects of workforce diversity on productivity, wages and profits.” Found at https://www.iza.org/conference_files/SUMS_2013/garnero_a8067.pdf.

[xi] Thomas Barta, Markus Kleiner and Tilo Neumann (April 2012) “Is there a payoff from top-team diversity? Between 2008 and 2010, companies with more diverse top team were also top financial performers. That is probably no coincidence.” Insights and Publications. McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey and Company. Found at http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/organization/is_there_a_payoff_from_top-team_diversity.

[xii] Anita Wolley, Thomas W. Mallone and Christopher Chabris (January 18, 2015) “Why some Teams are Smarter than Others.” The New York Times. Sunday Review, pp 5; and  Alex “Sandy” Pentland (April, 2012) “The New Science of Building Great Teams.” The Harvard Business Review.


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