Flexible working, parental leave, mentoring and women’s networks have become the norm in many businesses.
But gender diversity’s move into the mainstream gives an impression that gender issues at work have been “solved”, which makes more subtle discrimination harder to spot and can even disadvantage young women starting their careers.
“Younger women find it difficult to connect to women’s networks in the workplace, because they view these networks as something that belonged to their mother’s generation,” said Elisabeth Kelan, a lecturer in Work and Organisations in the Department of Management at King’s College in London.
Kelan describes this situation as “gender fatigue”, where people in the workplace lack the energy to tackle afresh something that they no longer see as a problem.
Research for her book Performing Gender at Work found that young women were not engaged by topics for discussion in women’s networks, which some felt were just a “club for whining”.
“This means they are deprived of a voice, they have no space where they can discuss the issues in relation to gender they face in the workplace.”
Companies have made big efforts to counter gender bias, appointing diversity officers and running diversity programs that have raised the profile of gender equality and diversity.
But women are still in the minority in top management jobs and many still find it tough to stick with a top-flight career when they have children.
And they have to overcome more subtle gender bias, which is much harder to deal with.
“It’s all about understanding unspoken rituals. Women are not told what to do. Men often are or they understand the rules intuitively,” said Kelan.
Alison Maitland, co-author with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox of the book Why Women Mean Business, says this bias is often unconscious until people are made aware of it.
“It’s rooted in the systems, expectations and ways of behaving in organisations that were designed and built by and for men in another era – when men were the primary, and often the sole, breadwinners,” said Maitland, who is director of The Conference Board’s European Council for Diversity in Business.
Maitland says the key to change is committed leaders at the top of companies who understand gender balance is a business issue, not an issue women must “solve.”
Diversity programs are good at focusing attention on gender, but on their own are not sufficient, experts said.
“We don’t see gender diversity as a bolt-on,” said Jim Wall, chief diversity officer and global managing director, talent at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.
“If it’s bolted on it isn’t effective. With this particular approach (ie bolted on) you see a rapid adoption of a program without changing the overall organisational context. It is not sustainable.”
He said mangers needed to be accountable to certain benchmarks.
“For example, in our firm we monitor if more women leave than men, do we promote women at the same rate as men, are women candidates for key leadership positions.”
Deloitte has introduced a “corporate lattice” concept to replace the traditional corporate ladder.
“It’s a relatively new approach. Organisations are no longer linear they are three dimensional. People move up, down, sideways depending on their needs and the needs of the business,” Wall said.
“Overall you measure output not input – hours of work are not important.”