Empowering Women In the Workplace: If Not Now, When?

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality. In 1970, thousands of women took to the streets across the US, calling for equal treatment in the workplace. Nearly 50 years on, things have improved cosmetically but there are still plenty of problems beneath the surface.

Our report, Speaking Truth to Power at Work, showed that inequality persists, but it is more difficult to see. Today’s workplace culture often spouts rhetoric about empowering women but doesn’t follow through with welcoming spaces for female voices.

Our survey found that women are more likely to worry about the potential ramifications of speaking out than men. Female workers were 11% more likely to worry about being perceived negatively when voicing their opinions. They also worried more about the effect of their actions on others, with 8% more women than men revealing that they were afraid of upsetting people by speaking up. These statistics reflected a notable difference in confidence levels between the two genders, with 11% more women pointing to confidence as a barrier to speaking up in the workplace, compared to their male counterparts.

This lack of confidence leads to general self-censorship in the workplace, according to individual women. One felt that she had to second-guess herself and carefully articulate her thoughts before speaking, lest she sound “stupid”. This often meant that the moment had passed by the time she was ready to speak.

What causes this culture of female self-censorship? If there’s one thing that saps the confidence of women in the workplace, it’s the male-dominated power structure in which they work. We can see this in the kinds of situations women find most comfortable in. Female respondents in our survey felt more guarded during formal meetings and one-to-one interactions with bosses. The narrowest confidence gap occurred during informal conversations, suggesting that the less subject a conversation was to public criticism from colleagues and higher-ups, the easier it was for a female worker to have.

The research found a tangible female fear of mis-stepping in a hostile power structure. Women more often cited fears of being ignored, or worse still limiting their career opportunities and incurring legal consequences if they spoke up.

Time for change

In 2019, it is time to close the gap and empower women at work. It promises to be an uphill struggle in many companies, but there are some steps people can take to redress the imbalance:

Encourage people to recognise their advantages

As two authors of the Speaking Truth to Power at Work report point out in their other research with Hult International Business School’s Ben Fuchs, it's difficult for those higher in the power structure to recognise innate social advantages that seem normal and unremarkable. Understanding the disadvantages that women face in the workplace is a function of showing male bosses their own social and cultural privilege.

Give unconscious bias training

Complement these conversations with unconscious bias training. We all have biases we are not aware of, and we can only eliminate these hidden prejudices by illuminating them first. The research showed that men had slightly more work here, with 72% of them stating that gender never impacts the way they listen to others, compared to 66% of women.

Encourage empathy

None of these exercises should come from a place of judgement. Blame games are easy to play, where privileged male managers who feel attacked defend themselves by blaming women for not speaking up. Framing a positive dialogue is essential if we are to break down barriers, as is creating spaces where different groups can better understand each other.

Find powerful advocates

Male advocates who understand the challenges facing women in business can lead by example, creating an encouraging, safe space for women to speak up. They are powerful allies and agents of longer-term cultural change.

Mentor and reverse mentor

Mentoring needn’t go one way. Conversations between lower-ranking women and senior managers prepared to take advice on how to create a more welcoming workspace can be powerful pivotal events in a changing workplace culture.

Create more opportunities for women

There’s no doubt that men fill senior roles far more than women. The 2018 Female FTSE Board Report, produced by the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, found that only 23.7% of FTSE 250 board members were women as of June 2018. Creating hierarchies with more women will create more female-led mentoring opportunities and open up a workplace in which women feel more able to speak.

Any cultural change is a slow burn. It will take many conversations to shift actions and perceptions. But we’ve been waiting a long time. Half a century after their ancestors filled the streets of New York, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco in protest, haven’t women waited long enough?

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
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