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    March 18, 2024

    Women's History Month: A Brief History of Women in the Workplace

    There is no doubt that women have and continue to contribute to business, innovation, and creating stronger economies. We have seen many firsts over the past 100-plus years with women contributing during both World War I and World War II by stepping into what were considered male-only professions. By July 1916 it was estimated that over three-quarters of a million women had taken up jobs related to “war work.” The war opened up roles previously considered inappropriate for them– heavy industrial work, commercial driving, complicated and dangerous chemical work, and even the production of explosives.

    After World War I ended, many women left their wartime positions. In most cases, women were fired from their jobs once soldiers came home and needed jobs. Women who did continue to work received lower wages than their male counterparts. But changes did start to happen, including women getting the right to vote in the UK and the United States.

    World War II saw another surge of women working in factories, driving ambulances, and once again stepping into jobs that had been unavailable to women. In the aircraft industry, women made up the majority of workers by 1943. But when the war ended, the vast majority of jobs were once again given to men.

    Starting in the late 1960s, the number of full-time housewives, those not working outside the home, steadily declined. Many took paid work in schools, health, and social care as the public sector expanded. More than 500,000 women entered the workforce between the late 1960s and early 1980s.

    The good news is that women’s representation in the C-suite continues to increase. Women CEOs ran 10.4% of Fortune 500 companies in 2023. However, there is lagging progress in the middle of the pipeline—and a persistent underrepresentation of women of color—true leadership equity remains s very high bar to reach.

    There are still centuries-old biases that contribute to women not being advanced in leadership in the workplace, including the caregiving bias that women lead with feeling more than logic or valued more in support roles. According to SHRM research, female managers were not as likely as male managers to say that they had not been made aware of internal job openings. SHRM’s surveys have also shown that female managers are less likely to feel included in key networks in their organization.

    A 2023 IBM study on gender equity in the workplace found similar challenges:

    • Structural barriers. One of the questions posed to male managers was whether they thought women with dependent children were as dedicated to their jobs as much as women without children. 60% of male managers disagreed.
    • The IBM survey also showed that male leaders are more valued for creativity and being results-oriented. Female leaders are expected to be strategic and bold but also people-oriented or expected to be more “people pleasing.”
    Though breaking the glass ceiling is important, the bigger issue is the “broken rung” that significantly reduces the number of women being promoted to top positions. Because of the gender disparity in early promotions, men end up holding 60% of manager-level positions in a typical company, while women occupy 40%. Since men significantly outnumber women, there are fewer women to be promoted to senior managers, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.

    But is there a true business case for having more gender parity, particularly in higher leadership roles? According to the study by The Business Case for Change of the World Labor Organization, companies that adequately work on parity in managerial positions gain key competitive advantages over those that do not: they increase profits by 5-20%.

    There is a true business case for fixing the issues in the leadership pipeline. For leadership at the top to prioritize gender equity, the C-Suite needs to be clear about the financial benefits. By understanding how an investment into addressing long-held biases, measuring who is getting promoted early in their careers, and providing more structured access to mentoring and networking groups, the gap can be closed. Every organization has an opportunity to make progress over the next 12 months. What will your company do beyond celebrating Women’s History Month?

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