By Eliot Sherman and Anna Johnston
In 2011, Sheryl Sandberg told women at a New York conference audience, “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry”. The Facebook COO said involving men in the gender parity debate was key to women’s success.
And the scope of the debate is significant: when Sandberg spoke in 2011, women held 21% of senior roles worldwide. Since then the number has increased by just 3%. During the same period, the fraction of global businesses without women represented at senior management has not budged from one-third.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the western world appeared to make good progress towards gender equality in the workplace. Women started graduating from college at equal or superior rates to men. The proportion of women in traditionally male fields – STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) – increased. Indeed, the wage gap narrowed. But progress has since stalled. “We seemed to hit a wall,” says Dr Sherman.
Why is executive leadership still a man’s game, even when firms compete for top talent?
At the 2017 student-led LBS Women in Business (WiB) Conference, women in top positions considered whether the answer boiled down to bias. They shared candid experiences spanning everything from missing out on promotions to dealing with derogatory comments.
Bias is important, says Dr Sherman: “But it’s far from the whole story. It’s an insufficient explanation for gender inequality today. Bias can’t explain why childless women have higher earnings – even compared to men.”
The penalty of motherhood
Encouraging men into the gender debate is critical. Globally, women spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work. In countries such as India and Pakistan, the ratio is nearly 10 times as many.
Motherhood in the US comes with a big price tag. One study of MBAs graduating from the University of Chicago Booth School between 1990 and 2006 shows the gender pay gap starts at almost zero. But after 16 years, women earn just 55% what men do. These numbers are in part down to reduced hours, because women are doing more of the childcare, Dr Sherman argues.
“Being a mother is a huge constraint for women who want to spend more time at work to move up the career ladder. Women who are leadership material, well paid and highly skilled, seem to be particularly hurt in their career progression when they take time off because their wage trajectories are so steep.”
Jobs can be like tournaments, says Dr Sherman, demanding long and particular hours – and uninterrupted time in a role. So this isn’t just about businesses showing mothers a red card, it’s about employees having a time-at-work penalty.
Dr Sherman says: “There’s still a perception that all knowledge work needs to take place physically in one place within the hours of 9–5, which is absurd. It also creates a big constraint if women are responsible for more childcare than men, as is often the case.”
Men must be part of the solution, he says. “Some of my research suggests that mothers’ earnings – in both high-paid and low-paid work – increase when their husbands provide more childcare.”
Social norms around male caregiving need to change. “Until more men leave the office early to collect their child, we are unlikely to see a meaningful shift in the number of women in executive roles,” Dr Sherman says.
Don’t sideline men
Rachel Barton, Accenture’s managing director for customer strategy UK, Europe, Latin America, and a WiB conference panellist, agreed that a balanced division of labour at home was critical in dual-earner families.
She said: “I think it should be a partnership in whatever form that takes. I have a very supportive home and we operate as a team to make everything work. But you also need support in the workplace so that barriers can be removed and you’re free to just get on with it.
“Over the last 10 years, men have been on the outskirts of the gender debate because we’ve been busy creating a movement and scripting a consistent message. But we can’t sideline men now.”
Barton, who was Accenture UK’s 2014 ‘Inspirational Leader of the Year’, spearheads Accent on Women, a network to help grow the next generation of leaders in the UK and Ireland. While running an Accent session, she realised “we’d gone as far as we can with women alone”. She vowed to open up the network, and in so doing the debate, to men. “As many men should be talking about gender diversity as women. It’s about families, not mothers. It’s about people, not women.”
Accenture promotes a progressive, inclusive workplace. In this film, for instance, Jeffrey Russell, Senior Managing Director, Accenture London explains what inclusive means: “I think in terms of diversity of gender, diversity of race, diversity of point of view, perspective, culture. It’s really about making sure we include and bring together the very best of our teams.”
Attitudes and social norms have great influence on gender equality issues, which are tough to change. Progress requires women, men, parents, community leaders and adolescents to talk about parity. As for businesses? Dr Sherman suggests companies hand more autonomy to their employees and promote flexible working schedules, helping families fit work around their “irregular” patterns – such as the need to collect children from school within the hours of a traditional 9–5 job. People can then be rewarded for their work, not their time.
Tycoon Richard Branson is one advocate of adapting work to fit people. For instance, he wrote in his blog that Virgin Group staff can work when and where they want: “We give people the freedom to work whether they are, at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.”
Flexible working isn’t new, of course, but traction is slow. At the same time, progress towards gender party needs a power boost: the World Economic Forum forecasts that it could take 170 years to eradicate the disparity in pay and employment opportunities. One thing is clear: the time for men and women to work in partnership and rethink social norms – at home and at work – is now.
Eliot Sherman is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.
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