Monday Mornings with Madison

Building a Woman-Friendly Workplace – Part 1

Part 1 – The Barriers

As of July 2014, women comprised over 50.8% (162 million) of the total U.S. population and 47.4% of the total U.S. labor force.  Of the 123 million women who can work (ages 16 years and over), 75.6 million or 57%, are labor force participants—either working or looking for work. (Comparatively speaking, 69.2% of men 16 years old and older are labor force participants.)  More importantly, women are projected to account for 51% of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018.  And yet women in the U.S. still earn only .79 per dollar that a man makes doing the same job.  They also make up less than 25% of all state and nationally-elected government leadership positions and less than 5% of all CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies.   Economists and leaders see this disparity in female earnings and female representation in government as a problem if the nation wants to stay competitive in the global marketplace.  But what can be done to make things more equitable?

Businesses can play a part in solving these problems.  For business, it starts by making the workplace more “women-friendly”.   Some big companies have already made big strides.  But there are still many business leaders who think that their company is already woman-friendly enough, and that any further accommodations will only hurt and interfere with the company’s productivity and efficiency.  Given that nearly half of labor force’s growth will be comprised of women, it could be argued that it just makes sense for companies to made workplaces more female-friendly.  The first step it to identify and understand the barriers.

Unfriendly Workplaces for Women

The first step is to admit that there is a problem.  Countless studies show that compensation and advancement opportunities at many companies in the U.S. are not equitable to women.  And many U.S. workplaces are not as female-friendly as they could be, and it is worse in some industries than others.  Here are some of the bigger issues.

1.   Pay gap – Since the primary reason people work is to earn a living, compensation is obviously one of the most important areas of disparity impacting women in the workplace.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual earnings of women 16 or older who worked year-round, full time in 2014 was $39,621. By comparison, the median annual earnings of men 16 or older who worked year-round, full time in 2014 was $50,383.  That’s a gap of over 20%.  This is due to a variety of reasons, but one key factor contributing to the pay gap is many companies pay women less than men for the same work.

2.  Difficult work schedules - Unpredictable, volatile and inflexible work schedules typical of low-wage jobs can make it impossible for working women to do additional work to make ends meet or care for their families.

3.  Poverty wages - Two-thirds of minimum wage workers in the U.S. are women ― and the minimum wage falls far short of what it takes to live above the poverty line.

4.  Lack of workplace accommodations during pregnancy - While many pregnant women don’t need any changes to their job during pregnancy, some are advised by their health care providers to take steps like avoiding heavy lifting or to sit instead of standing during long shifts behind a cash register. Those types of job adjustments are routinely provided to workers with disabilities — but are often denied to pregnant women even temporarily during maternity.

5.  Barriers to higher-skill, higher-paying jobs – In some industries (construction, mining, transportation, engineering and computer programming), it can be very difficult for women to get entry-level jobs, much less build lasting careers. Harassment, hostility, lack of mentors and stereotypes about women’s limited capabilities contribute to unequal access to certain jobs — often high-skill jobs that pay better — which then results in women taking jobs in lower-paying fields.

6.  Barriers to top-level positions – Women in the U.S. are making modest advances into upper level leadership positions. Twenty-six percent of college presidents are women. Among business school leaders, women hold nearly 20% of dean positions. Women make up 20% of the partners in private law firms, and 25% of U.S. federal court judges.  And, for the first time, there are 20 women U.S. Senators (out of 100; 20%) and 84 U.S. Representatives (out of 435; 19.3%).  That is progress even if it falls well short of the 50.9% of the population that are female.

That said, a CNNMoney analysis a few years ago showed women held just 5% of the CEO jobs in the S&P 500 and the pipeline of rising stars behind them was woefully thin.  That would explain why the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies dropped in 2016.  According to this year’s list, women currently hold just 21 CEO positions (4.2%) of the 500 companies that comprise the S&P.    Last year, there were 24.  And if we drill down by sectors, the percentage of female CEOs is even lower. The Consumer Discretionary and Financial sectors each have 4% female CEOs.  The Industrial and Material sectors each have just 3% female CEOs.  The Healthcare sector (which has a high percentage of female employees) has only 2% female CEOs.  And the Energy sector has 0% female CEOs.

Even areas where women are competing and succeeding, such as in sports and the current Olympics, women are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions.   The national sports federations responsible for fielding athletes to the Games, such as the International Federations (IFs) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, scarcely have women in leadership positions.  While the IOC claims to support the promotion of women and girls at all levels of sport, women are still seriously under-represented in the most influential positions in international sports.   Out of the 35 IFs, only nine have women in leadership roles at a level higher than 22%.  And only 5.7% of International Federation presidents, 12.2% of vice presidents, and 13.1% of executive committee members are women.

Some have argued that women simply don’t want to lead.  Of course, not everyone wants to lead.  Just as there are plenty of men who do not want the top positions in a company, there are also women who prefer freelance professions or jobs where they support senior staff rather than take a top management job.  And there is nothing wrong with those choices.  The problem is that many women don’t land top jobs, not because they don’t want them or can’t handle them, but because they aren’t groomed or encouraged to go after them the way men are.  As companies look to fill top openings, women aren’t even considered.  A “Women in the Workplace” study done by McKinsey & Co. in 2015, looking at the state of women in corporate America, surveyed 30,000 professionals in 118 companies from a wide range of industries including finance, health care, media, technology, and retail.  The study found that while women made up about 45% of those entering the professional workforce, only 37% make it to the senior management level, and 17% make it to the C-suite.  This suggests women face greater barriers to advancement at every level.

Companies that want to encourage women to enter and stay in the labor force need to examine closely their salary, bonus, benefits and processes to determine if women are welcome, are treated fairly and have opportunities for upward mobility.   Next week, we’ll look at steps companies are taking to make work environments more female-friendly.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“Every time a woman leaves the workforce because she can’t find or afford childcare, or she can’t work out a flexible arrangement with her boss, or she has no paid maternity leave, her family’s income falls down a notch. Simultaneously, national productivity numbers decline.” Madeleine M. Kunin


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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