To Support Women In The Workforce, Stop Focusing On Women

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Women’s workforce participation has rebounded since the pandemic, yet when it comes to achieving true equity for women in the workplace, we’ve got a long way to go.

Women still earn 83 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts—and Black and Latinx women earn even less, with earnings on the dollar at respectively 58 and 49 cents. And while becoming a father yields a wage premium in the workforce, becoming a mother comes with a wage penalty. And pay isn’t the only place where women’s economic advancement lags: In 2022, only 1.9% of venture capital funds went to women-founded startups. And occupational segregation has meant that women are clustered in certain fields, like retail and hospitality, that have been slower to recover post-pandemic.

Looking at this data, it’s hard not to wonder what we’ve been doing wrong. If we’ve been focusing on equitable economic advancement for women, and still not getting results, maybe it’s time to consider a new approach: what if we created strategies and solutions that aren’t specifically about women at all, but instead create supportive, equity-focused environments for all workers?

At the Forbes 30/50 Summit in Abu Dhabi, tennis great Billie Jean King, trailblazing feminist Gloria Steinem, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a profound observation gleaned from decades of fighting for women’s equality: many policies and supports intended to help women advance and thrive in the workforce place the burden on women to use them, reinforcing the same gender stereotypes that produce inequity in the first place. But legislators and major employers are testing a new approach. Boeing and Goldman Sachs have invested in family supports for workers, lighting the path to broader system changes; the passage of laws like the C.R.O.W.N. Act in 20 states addresses racially-discriminatory rules about hairstyles and appearance in the workplace, and shows the powerful potential of policy change.

Here are three actions companies can take to support all workers, and support women in the process:

Change Practices, Not People. Too often, women are told to mimic their male colleagues’ behaviors to get the jobs, salaries, and promotions they want. While it may be an effective strategy for some, it doesn’t change the underlying conditions that yield better results for male employees. A 2022 study from MIT’s Sloan School of Business found that at one major company, women received fewer promotions regardless of performance, because they were judged to have less “potential” than their male peers; the problem was, potential was minimally defined and at the manager’s discretion, leading to strong risk of implicit bias.

Instead of relying on individual judgment, or in-person presentation and affect, companies should consider creating a robust, skills-focused, metrics-informed process for hiring and promotion that reduces opportunities for bias, and instead evaluates candidates and workers on a consistent and measurable basis. It’s not specifically for women, but it will certainly expand the pool of opportunities for them.

Battle the “Mystique of Masculinity.” The motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus that researchers have observed in the workforce creates a drastic wage gap: new mothers experienced a 30% income drop, while fathers experienced a 22% income bonus. At the summit, Steinem attributed this to “the mystique of masculinity,” or a perception that parenthood adds to men’s skills, while diminishing women’s. Sociologists report that men with children are seen as stable, committed employees; women with children are perceived as distracted and less hard-working.

Steinem noted that it’s tough to solve this in the workplace without ensuring that caregiving duties are equally shared in the home, as well. Nonetheless, researchers say that generous parental leave policies, offered to both men and women, can minimize the motherhood penalty and convey that caregiving isn’t treated as a woman’s concern.

Recognize the Child Care Crisis. Child care in the United States is not a women’s issue or a men’s issue; it’s a national crisis that costs the country an estimated $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. The pandemic significantly reduced the child care workforce, and affordability and accessibility remain critical barriers for many families, particularly parents who work in lower-wage jobs.

Many companies have taken significant steps toward easing the child care burden for their employees, but this is a culture and policy issue that won’t be addressed without advocacy and allyship. The CHIPS Act, designed to boost semiconductor research and manufacturing, struck new ground last year by including a child care requirement for some qualifying manufacturers, making a strong statement about child care as a workforce issue, not a women’s issue. I hope that other leaders in Washington see the value of this approach, and look for other opportunities to build these supports into their initiatives.

The women at the Forbes 30/50 Summit all proved, through their journeys, that we’ve come a long way—but each also noted that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to true equity. I look forward to connecting with other women leaders again someday, and hopefully marking new progress for women in the workforce.



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