Study Finds Advancing Women Is Not A Priority For 70% Of Organizations Surveyed
According to a recent IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study, despite heightened awareness of women’s challenges in the workplace driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, gender equity is still not a top priority for 70% of global businesses to business professionals surveyed. The study also shares the actions that can help drive bold and sustainable change in the industry, with learnings from companies that rank gender inclusivity as a top business priority.
The global study “Women, leadership, and missed opportunities,” which follows similar research published in 2019, also shows that gender equity may be at a crossroads, with the leadership pipeline for women shrinking. For example, fewer women surveyed hold senior vice president, vice president, director, and manager roles in 2021 than they did in 2019.
“The data show that many women leaders are experiencing challenges at this moment. However, suppose these issues are not addressed more deeply than in prior years. In that case, there is a risk of progress backsliding further,” said Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president, global markets, IBM, and senior executive sponsor of the IBM Women’s Community. “We should seize creative solutions now and redouble our efforts to make meaningful, lasting change that can help all women reach their full potential.”
In addition, the study indicates employees surveyed feel fatigued and waning optimism over ineffective programmatic efforts to address gender equity. Only 62% of women surveyed (down 9 %age points from 2019) and 60% of men surveyed (down 7 %age points from 2019) expect their organization will significantly improve gender parity over the next five years.
More Programs Don’t Mean More Progress
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“This study is a continuation of research work that IBM has been doing for several years,” said van Kralingen. “In 2019, the IBM Institute for Business Value surveyed 2,300 executives, middle managers, and professionals—an equal number of women and men—across 10 industries and nine geographic regions. As a result, we want to understand better why a significant gender disparity in the leadership ranks persists and what can be done to drive progress toward gender equity.”
According to the study, more organizations are instituting more programs to help improve gender equity and inclusion compared to 2019, like gender-blind job screenings and parental leave for women. However, the study suggests that has not translated to better outcomes because mindsets and cultures have not changed enough alongside the programs.
When asked how to best address these findings, van Kralingen answered, “The big takeaway from the study is that the last year took a toll on female leaders. Between 2019 and today, the pipeline of women looking to move into leadership roles shrank. At the same time, advancing women is still not a top priority for 70% of organizations. This is bad for the overall economy, business, and women and men — and it is important to address this issue head-on. The good news is that there are solutions to address this boldly and sustainably. Moreover, we see these solutions at work based on examples the study refers to as “First Mover” companies that have made this a priority.
The “First Mover” Advantage and Creating Diversity
The study identified a group (11%) of survey respondents referred to as “First Movers” who designate the advancement of women as a formal business priority, view gender-inclusivity as a driver of financial performance, and are highly motivated to take action. First Movers self-reported more robust economic performance, as much as a 61% higher mean rate of revenue growth compared to the mean reported by other organizations in our study. It also showed more substantial innovation and more vital customer and employee satisfaction.
IBM is also striving to do its part in seek out more diverse job candidates. “We take a multi-pronged approach,” van Kralingen explained. “First, we know that in the last year, more than 5 million women in the United States alone were cleaved from their jobs. It is important to give them a runway back into the labor force, and we do just that with our Tech Re-Entry program. This is a global six-month paid ‘returnship’ for technical professionals who have been out of the workforce for 12 months or longer. We have seen a 167% increase in applicants to this program compared to the previous year, and 99% of the program’s participants are women. But it’s also about retaining women too.”
A Roadmap for Sustainable Progress
According to the study, organizations can take specific and bold steps following the example of First Movers to help accelerate progress in gender equity in the workplace.
Pair bold thinking with significant commitments. For example, make gender equity a top-five formal business priority, and create pathways for women to re-enter the workforce. For example, IBM offers a six-month paid ‘returnship’ for technical professionals who have been out of the force for 12 months, which provides training, access to tools and technology, mentorship, and work assignments on technical projects that are matched to their expertise.
Apply specific crisis-related interventions. For example,additional benefits like backup childcare support and access to mental health resources can be essential. Other recent IBV research found that the best-performing CEOs say they are committed to supporting the wellbeing of their employees, even at the cost of profitability or budget.
Create a culture of intention, and insist on making room. Focus on empathetic leadership and enabling middle managers to be advocates for positive cultural change. People leaders can intentionally champion inclusive team cultures, with flexibility aligned to individuals’ personal and professional needs, and set accountability into business and individual goals to sponsor the future pipeline of women leaders.
Use technology to accelerate performance. For example, organizations can use technologies like AI to help reduce bias in the candidate screening process, provide cloud-based digital tools for communication and feedback to surface what’s working and what’s not in supporting women in the workplace, and invest in collaborative tools and teaming practices that allow women and men to engage effectively in physical and remote environments even after the pandemic abates.
For women who are either trying to re-enter the workforce or pivot their careers, van Kralingen advises to have confidence in your abilities, and if you see a role that seems like a good fit, take your shot and apply.
“For women who are looking to pivot their careers, in particular, I would suggest two things: The first is to investigate SkillsBuild, a free career-readiness program that IBM launched to provide job seekers with online coursework, credentials, coaching, and more to prepare people for in-demand roles in multiple industries.”
“Second, look into apprenticeship programs,” van Kralingen continues. “IBM dropped the four-year-degree prerequisite in our hiring process back in 2017. We did this because we understand the value in “new collar” skills training programs and the assets that this more inclusive applicant pool can bring to the table. These programs offer pathways to roles in technology that can be more flexible and family-sustaining for women and men alike.”