Breaking the Bias in the Workplace

March 8, 2022


It will take 257 years to reach gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum 2020 Global Gender Gap Report. The report shows that while other metrics of gender equality have improved (education attainment and health are close to parity, for example), the economic participation and opportunity metric has regressed to 57.8%.

As the world honors another International Women’s Day on March 8, women in Egypt and the MENA region continue to be significantly under-represented in leadership, facing wage inequalities and bias in recruitment, hiring and promotions.

Plenty of steps can — and must — be taken to improve gender equality in the workplace. Noha Hefny, founder of People of Impact, a platform focused on driving inclusive economic growth and development, suggests ways leaders and organizations can make concrete improvements in gender equality. Hefny is also a UN Women senior consultant.

“We need to look at improving gender equality in the workplace holistically through a strategic lens and integrated approach,” she says. “Gender equality should be fully integrated into business strategy and not be implemented on an ad-hoc basis.”

Those are her recommendations:

End salary secrecy

The gender pay gap measures the difference in average earnings between male and female employees. In 2020, women worldwide earned 81 cents for every US dollar earned by men, according to Statista. While this has improved over the years – up from 74 cents in 2015 – more work is needed, particularly as women are still less likely to negotiate their salary.

There is no reason why women should be compensated less than men for the same roles, Hefny said. Companies need to review salary schemes and benefits packages, and work toward eliminating this gap progressively. If the gap exists in your organization, you can close it through a raise for the women impacted. Once discrepancies have been eliminated, look at how to ensure transparency on salary and policies, and do not discourage conversations by employees about their salaries. Including salary information in job postings and standardizing pay are the most transparent and effective ways a company can show it is committed to equal pay for both men and women.

Eliminate (unconscious) bias in recruitment

A Yale University study found in 2012 that both male and female scientists who took a course on how to hire objectively failed to hire objectively. The results found they still preferred to hire men over women, viewed them as more skilled and offered about $4,000 more per year in salary. Participants in the study were bewildered by the results. They were surprised to find their bias was completely unconscious.

Remove the gender and name of candidates [in resumes], enabling hiring managers to choose solely on the basis of merit, Hefny noted. Establish a diverse interview panel that is gender-balanced. Provide benefits that are attractive to all, but can bridge inequity faced by women for years. This includes remote and flexible work arrangements. Benefits like family leave, health care and work-life balance are particularly appealing to women who often are primary caregivers and need a supportive work environment.

It is key to clarify processes relating to recruitment, hiring, promotion and salary negotiation. If this does not occur, it is likely women will be at a disadvantage. Due to affinity bias, people tend to lean toward people who are similar to them, and this can lead to discrimination and unconscious bias.  Clarity of career advancement,  especially promotions and development, and strong governance and oversight in these areas can make a significant difference for women.

Reinvent work cultures away from continuous availability

The “Great Resignation” is well under way in the United States, with women leading the charge. A record 8.7 million people quit their jobs in August and September, according to the U.S. Labor Department. It was women saying “I quit” more than men, according to data from payroll provider Gusto, which serves small and medium-sized businesses.

Career progression opportunities are hindered for women when work conflicts with domestic responsibilities, Hefny explains. Many organizations have cultures where working long hours is the norm. There is an expectation that employees will always be available, even after work hours. That limits options for part-time work when needed in a career journey, particularly for women when they become mothers. This is the reality of today’s workplace culture, but it no longer serves either women or men. Yet it hinders women’s careers more and unintentionally favors men over women in career advancement.

Develop policies for part-time work, which can serve employees at times in their career journey when their personal lives or responsibilities demand time and attention. This should happen without having to compromise a career path. This should be coupled with work-life integration and policies.

Stigma and discriminatory comments and attitudes toward women who opt for such work styles should end. Policies for parental leave also can be extended to men to avoid stigmatizing women for leveraging them. It also can support women’s growth due to shared responsibilities in childcare, for instance.

Build “women supporting women” networks

Nearly seven in 10 businesses reported an increase in productivity due to mentoring, according to a report by the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2010.

Mentorship, whether peer to peer or from male leaders, is key for the advancement of women at work, Hefny said.  Structured programs are effective at measuring results and ensuring mentorship is consistent and outcomes are beneficial for both the mentee and mentor.
Support networks are key to highlighting success stories of emerging women leaders and enhancing the leadership of women in senior management roles. The ability to lean on peers for support can transform women’s career journeys. Coaching circles for women leaders are great examples of what organizations can do.

Give emerging women leaders opportunities to present ideas to the C-suite is another way for women to gain support and validation for their work and make them feel valued.

Sponsorship is another way to provide women with support and advance their leadership journeys. Having advocates and allies to push for a promotion or to create an opportunity is key to advancing women’s careers and providing them with the right support for their development and growth.

Do not retaliate against women claiming their rights

In many countries, it would be against the law to terminate a female employee for making a claim of unequal treatment or about violations relating to organizational policies or processes that are in line with local laws.

Inequalities women face at work can be in terms of pay, promotion, career development opportunities, motherhood and maternity leave rights, or other areas. Work toward creating a safe environment for all employees, one that is not hostile toward either gender. Women should not face retaliation for speaking to colleagues or a manager about unequal treatment.

Allow for a clear process where such claims are reported to HR or to the direct manager of the employee and addressed swiftly with clear actions. Women who raise claims about existing inequalities at work that violate the law or company policies should not be fired.

Conduct training on inclusive leadership

Academic studies and countless anecdotes make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is a nearly universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men, according to the New York Times. Hefny said this can leave women feeling excluded, undervalued and doubting themselves.

This behavior also costs organizations a high price, due to a lack of retention, lack of satisfaction on the job, and demotivation, all of which reduces productivity.  Building an inclusive culture and leadership models that can engage and support all employees, with a focus on women, can help address this issue.  Leaders should hold themselves accountable to standards that ensure women feel included in meetings and discussions. They should set the tone on the need to be inclusive and to use language and behaviors that do not exclude and dismiss others. This has a significant impact on women’s retention and job satisfaction.

Roll out training to employees at all levels about unconscious and conscious bias and stereotypes, and why they are harmful and can lead to discrimination. Work toward building a tolerant, inclusive and balanced workplace culture. Leadership models and training for leaders and people managers on inclusive leadership also would be beneficial and necessary in workplaces that have not yet adopted such cultures and where retention and job satisfaction are a challenge.

Follow a zero-tolerance policy on harassment

In 2017, the BBC surveyed 2,000 women respondents and showed that most victims of sexual harassment didn’t report the violations. Either for fear of retaliation or if the harassment was played off as a joke, more than half of all victims stayed silent.
Ensure that leaders and managers are trained on a zero-tolerance policy and understand how serious the organization’s position is on these matters, Hefny advised. A hotline to report issues related to any form of harassment should be made available and communicated clearly to all employees. Ensure these hotlines or mechanisms adhere to the highest levels of confidentiality and those reporting incidents do not get reprimanded.

Prompt and concrete action should be taken to ensure that these mechanisms are effective and for employees to be confident their grievances will be addressed in a swift, confidential and concrete manner. The above process should be supported by strong communication at the executive level multiple times a year.