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How flexible work can improve female gender equity in pay and career

By Rhonda Elcock and Shekar Nalle Pilli Venkateswara | September 23, 2021

Gender equity in the workplace begins with equal access for women to pay, benefits and career opportunities.
Work Transformation|Inclusion-and-Diversity|Employee Experience|Ukupne nagrade |Benessere integrato

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About the series: Reimagining flexible work

In this series, we discuss how employers are reimagining flexible work as they prepare for a post-pandemic future and seek to deliver an enhanced employee experience. Specifically, we’ll explore strategies and programs to create a resilient and dynamic organizational culture that empowers both employers and employees to achieve their objectives and create a competitive advantage.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, the gender pay gap grew to 136 years from 99.5 years just before the pandemic, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report. This means that the time it would take for women to reach pay parity with men grew more than 36%. WEF identified women’s limited access to economic opportunities as the most critical area of gender-related inequality.

Achieving gender equity in the workplace is not just about base salary, but more importantly about enabling equitable access to opportunities.

Our annual surveys on workforce analytics have found the pay gap is heavily driven by low female representation at higher levels in organizations and in jobs with higher earning potential (and subsequently, higher representation in lower income levels). Under-representation at higher levels also leads to a higher tendency to experience lower outcomes in different areas such as access to healthcare, financial savings, job security and wellbeing. The disparity is further exacerbated for women who are also part of other under-represented workforce groups (e.g., race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and those with disabilities).

Today, only around 7% of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs and only about a third of senior management roles globally are held by women. These numbers are better than they were three years ago, but the male voices still far outnumber female voices in areas of influence. It remains tough for women in general to break the glass ceiling and access career boosts that are usually tied to higher-paying jobs, such as incentive eligibility and skills development. But things may be improving for women as options for the way we work have changed and expanded dramatically.

The increased prevalence of flexible work options resulting from the pandemic has sparked rethinking of how, when and where work gets done across the range of jobs and skills within an organization. This has also inspired rethinking of long-term career equity objectives, particularly the long-overdue focus on supporting opportunities for women.

Equity at work is about accessibility to opportunities

Establishing a culture of equity in the workplace can directly impact female employees’ sense of physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing. This begins with truly identifying and understanding their diverse experiences, needs and preferences and, in so doing, empowering female employees to help define rewards that resonate with them.

As organizations reassess their current approach to Total Rewards, using a framework that is founded on flexible work and wellbeing, employers could move toward enhancing women’s accessibility to pay, benefits and career programs. Here are some ways for organizations to start strong on their journey toward female gender equity in the workplace:

Enable employees to forge their own career journeys 

Create a globally consistent job architecture and career framework, in which career paths are clearly defined and therefore enable employees to both navigate and steer their careers. Articulating flexible work options that are tied to the framework can open potential career opportunities that meet employees’ work-life considerations.

For example, organizations can use employee-level insights to redesign work requirements and match those with flexible work options, such as remote or hybrid arrangements, that could attract mothers with young children (or other dependent care responsibilities) to careers that were previously inaccessible to them. This can be further supported by additional career development and mobility resources, including the availability of a wide and diverse network of mentors. To optimize the value of the career framework, leverage interactive portals to help employees visualize potential career journeys and access opportunities across the entire organization.

Broaden pay equity analytics

The pandemic helped to prove that through flexible working options, organizations can improve processes and programs to make career opportunities accessible to women and ultimately pave paths towards greater career equity. To get there, organizations could use advanced analytics to cross-analyze multiple quantitative and qualitative variables across the employee lifecycle, in order to determine the root causes of inequity.

For example, organizations may want to assess existing practices around hiring, promotion, performance management vis-à-vis female employees’ work-life experiences. Some findings may include low female representation at higher levels or in higher-paying roles; a lack of female candidates in promotional pools; or a trend that shows how much longer it takes for females to be promoted versus males in similar job families.

Enhance female employees’ financial stability through flexible financial education.

Today, the pay gap is at 82 cents to a dollar on average. Not only are women still earning less, but they are also generally stay in the workforce less time than most men due to traditional gender roles. Unfortunately, this difference worsened during the pandemic – giving women smaller opportunities to gain long-term financial stability.

As employers address pay inequity and help to increase women’s earning potential, organizations could further help to improve female employees’ financial confidence and resilience through financial education programs with targeted coaching, designed on top of flexible work options. This provides women choice around where and when they could access educational events and resources and increases their opportunity to choose between growing a career over simply earning an income.

Foster a culture of social wellbeing and workplace dignity

As organizations build their flexible work strategies, they can integrate lessons learned from the pandemic about the psychosocial challenges of a hybrid work-life experience. For example, our 2021 Emerging from the Pandemic Survey found that caregiving demands are a top cause of anxiety and depression among working mothers. Beyond improving or establishing policies to support women’s wellbeing, organizations could more effectively sustain social wellness by committing to creating a culture of respect, dignity and purpose at work.

Integrate flexibility into strategic workforce planning and management

Effective forecasting also considers how, where and when employees work. Incorporating a flexible work policy into workforce planning can enable employers to identify ways to create greater accessibility for employees across all demographics. This could greatly increase chances of attracting female talent, while also increasing engagement and retention levels and enabling the creation of a deeper succession pipeline with highly qualified employees. In addition, flexible work options are still a competitive differentiator for many organizations – particularly for organizations that have committed to increasing gender representation across the enterprise (particularly at senior leadership levels).

Leverage workforce analytics in correcting organizational imbalances

Utilize organizational and market data to objectively identify areas of unbalanced talent distribution. Some areas may be male-dominant because managers need better guidance hiring and mentoring female talent. Other areas may possibly be improved through implementing flexible work approaches, and thus enable more women to access new types of opportunities and contribute to new business pursuits with better growth potential.

Expand accessibility and diversity of development programs

Workforce analytics may also reveal that women in your organization are generally learning a narrow band of skills compared to most men, thereby preventing access to gaining a broader range of skills and competencies that lead to more career growth. A potential roadblock could be a lack of flexible options for learning and development that consider the female experience. Organizations could drive higher female participation by enriching flexible options such as self-paced modules and online-based programs, creating multiple schedule options for company-wide learning events and providing sufficient opportunities for female talent to put theory into practice.

Organizations need not go far to figure out impactful actions that could increase equity for women at work. Build your roadmap using a data-based approach to find gaps in accessibility, mitigating disparity in outcomes and inviting female employees to share their experiences.

McKinsey Global Institute’s updated Power of Parity study estimates that, with stronger female participation in the economy, global GDP could see a $13 trillion-boost by 2030. Taking actions now to implement gender-responsive policies and empower female talent can lead to huge wins for everyone.


Senior Director, Talent and Rewards
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Senior Director, Talent Analytics
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