Beyond Headlines and Hashtags: How We Can Actually Help Women in the Workplace

Businesses need to go beyond paying lip service to gender equality if we are to make meaningful change.
Beyond Headlines and Hashtags: How We Can Actually Help Women in the Workplace
Image credit: 2018 Mercer

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Senior Partner and Global Leader of the Multi-National Client Group at Mercer
6 min read
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The current #MeToo moment is a rare inflection point for women in society, as we find ourselves in a broad and potentially game-changing conversation about how women are faring in the workplace and beyond. Everyone -- from investors, board members, business leaders and employees to customers and suppliers of businesses large and small -- is aligned on the issue that the pace of change and the results are simply not acceptable.

Related: Think You Don't Have a Boys' Club? Take This Test and Be Sure.

Despite the headlines and the hashtags, leaders and organizations are asking themselves the tough questions: “Are we making progress or creating an echo chamber?” When it comes to gender equality, the data remains stark, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Report, which captures the the magnitude of gender-based disparities across economies, education, health and political engagements.

The most eye-opening statistic from the 2017 report is that the gender gap will not be closed for 217 years -- we are going backward, not forward. This is easier to comprehend when we look at the forces facing women in the workforce. For example, millions of jobs primarily held by women, mainly administrative and service jobs, are threatened by the rise of automation, while the slow progress toward pay equity in many industries plays a major role.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the focus on accelerating the pace and rate of change for women has driven many of the sessions and conversations. Mercer’s fourth annual When Women Thrive session in Davos drove a debate and catalyzed a discussion on concrete steps to change the trajectory for women in business and society. (When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive is Mercer’s global research and solution platform, founded in 2014 to help organizations grow through the participation of their female workforce.)

Related: 4 Steps for Small Businesses to Achieve Gender-Neutral Salaries

The choice facing all of us is whether we are going to seize this opportunity to accelerate progress or watch the potential for progress slip away. If we get distracted -- if we pay lip service to gender equality but fail to apply the true accelerators of progress in our own organizations -- then we may not achieve the results we want.

Encouragingly, Mercer’s Davos session brought together a broad range of business executives, social impact NGOs and leading academics who offered examples of strategies and organizational commitment to achieve gender diversity, advancement and pay equity. Several critical strategies emerged on how to drive meaningful results and dramatically improve the numbers. In addition, organizations need:


Organizations must understand what is happening to their female talent. Simply acting on hypothesis or anecdotes won’t advance women in a meaningful way. The good news is that organizations have abundant data about their workforce and a multitude of analytic tools and methodologies that make it faster and easier than ever to mine that data for critical insights.

Related: 4 Essentials to Mitigate Fallout From a Pay-Gap Analysis 

Leaders with passion and personal commitment

Analytics, while essential, is not enough. Organizations must have leaders courageous enough to lead change, from the board and investors down to team leaders. After all, the purpose of analytics is not simply to study a problem but to solve it -- and this requires leaders at all levels of the organization ready and willing to act. This is the much bigger challenge for many organizations, because while analytics can be outsourced, passion can’t. There has never been a more promising moment to engage leaders and create alignment through the organization.

Practices and programs that suppoert women's careers and enable them to bring their whole selves to work

This includes diligent pay equity processes, bias-free promotion and performance management processes, and programs that acknowledge and support women’s disproportionate responsibility for caretaking and unique health and financial needs. Unconscious bias in hiring and promotion must be confronted and eliminated.

Related: Women Won't Achieve Equal Representation in Business Unless Men Help Change the Status Quo

Recognizing men matter

It’s also vital to emphasize, strongly, that men matter. They make up the majority of executive ranks and even more than that at the CEO level, and have a unique obligation to be out in front advancing women’s participation and engagement in the workforce -- personally and on behalf of their organization. A sign of progress is that 40 percent of the participants at the Davos session were men who are actively engaged and driving change.

While these building blocks are essential to women’s progress, equally essential are linking mechanisms that connect the organization’s efforts for maximum impact. HR may be sponsoring mentoring programs and business resource groups, legal may be doing pay equity analyses, and talent may be conducting employee engagement surveys and looking at high potentials. Still, if no one is linking together these efforts to ensure they collectively deliver the desired results, the organization’s effort is likely to fall short of creating real change.

Related: New Study Finds That Your Career Income Is Significantly Impacted by the First 10 Years on the Job

When it comes to preparing for the long term, women face a “perfect storm” financially: They are paid less than men are on average, typically have more gaps in employment, engage in more part-time employment and are often more risk-averse investors. All of these factors conspire to reduce the amount of money women are able to accumulate for retirement -- yet a woman’s retirement tends to last on average three years longer than a man’s does.

Too often, though, the responsibility for effecting change that would empower women at work is placed on HR management -- but what’s required is more than programming within the human resources silo. The larger goal of a thriving female workforce must be the focus of business leadership throughout the organization, who play the role of organizational change agents, educators and goal-setters. Let’s hope our Davos dialogue continues to inspire a true movement and reinforces that the current results are simply not acceptable. We look forward to changing the trajectory for 2018 and beyond.

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