Closing The Gap

If companies made these changes, every woman in America could earn up to $30,000 more

Bryce Covert, Contributor
Photo courtesy of Getty

International Women's Day, a commemoration that grew out of women's labor organizing and has become a recognition of women's economic contributions and a push for their equality, has come to be accompanied by a flurry of press releases from companies that pledge to do more to reach gender equality and wage parity.

But moving from a promise to concrete practice is the hard part.

Currently, women hold less than a quarter of senior roles around the world, while a third of global businesses have no women in senior management at all. Women are still 22 percent less likely to reach management than men, while men are 47 percent more likely to reach a senior management level than their female counterparts.

So what can companies that want to change these numbers do to help women advance? A new report from professional services firm Accenture points the way forward, and argues that if all employers were willing to commit to these strategic changes, women's pay could increase significantly — as much as $30,000.

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"Leaders of businesses and organizations have the power to close the gender gap in career advancement and pay," the report promises. They just have to take action on the factors that are statistically proven to enhance women's chances of moving up.

The company surveyed more than 22,000 people across 34 countries about what factors most contribute to a positive work environment, and then matched them against research to identify the 40 top changes that are proven to bring about change, with 14 that are the most important. They fall broadly into three main categories: diverse leadership with clear goals about equality, policies and practices that can eliminate gender bias and an environment of trust and respect for employees.

Concrete and public targets

In the first category, Accenture found that it's crucial to make gender diversity and equal pay a priority, and women are far more likely to get on the fast track to advancement in organizations with at least one female senior leader than those with none at all. But diversity can't just be a goal; companies must also have a concrete target that is clearly and publicly stated, and then hold leaders accountable to it.

The report says having a women's network, including one that's also open to men, is crucial. Despite this fact, half of the women Accenture surveyed work for a company without any networks. So too is not just having a parental leave program, but one that encourages men to take time off.

Only offering maternity leave can actually be detrimental to women's advancement, but if men can also take leave the negative impact on women's careers completely disappears — and even turns into a boost. Yet the majority of major American employers offer less leave to fathers than mothers, or even none at all.

A culture of freedom

Culture matters just as much as policy. The report finds that it's important never to ask employees to change their appearances or conform to a dress code. They also need to be made to feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment and discrimination when it happens.

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Nearly a third of both men and women in the survey said that sexual harassment and discrimination has either stayed the same or gotten worse during their tenure, but nearly half of the women said their employer hasn't instituted any policies to address it.

It's also important to trust employees enough to give them a long leash and concrete support. Accenture recommends making remote work both easily available and also commonplace, giving employees the opportunity to work from home for the day if they need, and letting them avoid long travel and instead join meetings virtually. Companies should also provide relevant training to improve skills and give employees "the freedom to be creative and innovative."

"If [a female employee is] not judged by her looks, if she has flexible hours, if her boundaries are respected, she is more likely to rise," the report states.

Change in practice

Accenture ran its own models to see what would happen if the world's employers put these ideas into practice. For one thing, we would see a lot more women in leadership around the world. In companies where the 40 factors it identified are all in place, women are nearly four times as likely to advance to a senior management level than in places where the factors are lacking.

Currently, for every 100 male managers there are just 34 female ones. With these changes in place, there could be as many as 84 women for every 100 men in management.

If men can also take [parental] leave the negative impact on women's careers completely disappears — and even turns into a boost.
"When She Rises, We All Rise"
Ellyn Shook and Julie Sweet, Accenture

The gender wage gap would also shrink significantly. In companies that invest in the 40 factors, women are more likely to have gotten a recent salary increase. If all employers adopted them, women's pay could increase by 51 percent, which would mean an extra $30,000 in an individual American woman's pocket. The global gender wage gap could decrease from its current status, at which women make 73 percent of what men do, to one where women make 92 percent.

But these changes don't just lift women up — they also help men. Accenture found that workplaces that adopt practices that foster an environment of equality also help men progress more quickly in their careers: Men are also more than twice as likely to advance to senior management.

Making 40 changes may seem like a lot of work, but they all help reinforce each other.

"Our research found that achieving success in all three categories creates a virtuous circle, with each one enhancing the others so that, when combined, they deliver an even greater impact than they would in isolation," the report states. "Together, they nurture a culture of purpose, accountability, belonging, trust and flexibility."

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