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Men and women may work side-by-side and share similar ambitions, but their experiences in the workplace are markedly different. Whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, or North America, globally, women continually voice the challenges of the climb to the top. Few make it to the highest echelons of corporate life. This is seldom for want of skill, but often for lack of visibility.

To tackle the gender disparity in the workplace, leaders must enlist more men in the fight to effect change and tackle systemic bias. Diversity and inclusion are not only women’s issues — they are human issues and these issues play an integral role in enhancing both competitiveness and innovation. In light of the growing call for gender equality, the public and private sector have an opportunity to create inclusive, dynamic spaces as economies and consumer markets grow and formalize.

But gender parity in senior leadership cannot be achieved solely from women’s efforts. In order to close the leaky pipeline, male leaders must pass the torch in three ways:

1. Plug the visibility gap through sponsorship

Men who actively sponsor junior colleagues improve workplace diversity. Elevating and advocating for women at all career stages is critical as boards, senior, and executive positions remain dominated by men, despite availability of qualified women candidates. According to Bain and Company, women represent only 7 percent of executive directors on boards in South Africa — but 46 percent of people entering the workplace there are women. This disparity signifies a troubling reality: women are consistently passed over while men are promoted to leadership positions at greater rates.

However, research consistently shows that men are more hesitant to participate in gender equality efforts, largely because they do not feel it is their place. This mindset contributes to the ongoing struggles working women face.

To change this narrative, companies should encourage sponsorship initiatives. A sponsor is often defined as “someone two rungs up the corporate ladder, who advocates a person’s promotion.” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, argues that while “mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers.” Sponsors can advance women’s careers by making their skills and contributions to projects more visible. CTI research has found that people with sponsors are 23 percent more likely to advance their careers than those without sponsors. When a woman has a sponsor in her corner, she is more likely to seek a raise or rise internally because, unlike mentors, sponsors are actively involved in the leadership agendas of their sponsorees — and significantly help in fast-tracking their careers.

2. Tackle unconscious bias

By recognizing and embracing diversity in thought and background, men can appreciate all available talent. Efforts to tackle the unconscious bias that holds back firm-wide innovation are likely to fail unless organizations sensitize employees to their blind spots and develop creative approaches to systemize how people conceive performance. According to the Women in the Workplace study by and McKinsey & Co., for every 100 women promoted to management positions, 130 men are promoted. These statistics are even more glaring in emerging markets. In Africa, a mere  5 percent of CEOs are women, while in Asia, boardroom diversity stands at an average 7.5 percent. 

Until companies examine the biases that shape decision-making, these figures will remain stagnant or, worse, regress. Unconscious bias takes various forms and can often be difficult to pinpoint, but can lead to barriers to entry and promotion, as well as contribute to ongoing underestimation of women’s potential. During the 1970s, when the top U.S. orchestras were only 5 percent female, orchestras famously began hosting blind auditions, which doubled the chances of women advancing to the final round.

In the business world, we can institute similar structural changes from anonymized recruitment processes to structuring collaborative working environments. Proactive human resource departments and forward-thinking executives can lead the charge, but one of the best ways to ensure long-lasting change is to push for diversity at the board level. Diverse and effective boards, particularly long-serving ones, significantly impact organizational structures and improve decision-making processes.

3. Recognize diversity is good for the bottom line — and for society

Women account for half of the world’s working population, so our government and businesses must reflect that reality. As McKinsey notes, diverse teams perform better. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Proactive hiring of women also has ripple effects for the economy: the UNDP estimates that total annual economic losses due to gender inequality in the labor market have averaged $95 billion per year since 2010 in sub-Saharan Africa and could be as high as $105 billion, or 6 percent, of the region’s GDP.

However, when we frame the gains of women in business in pure economic terms, we fail to capture how embracing an inclusive workplace can have larger impacts across broader society. When workplaces are more reflective of communities, businesses can shift society from the inside out.

From widespread protests to the #MeToo movement, tackling gender bias has gained renewed focus in the past year. Despite decades of dialogue and scholarship advocating for more women in the workplace, women remain underrepresented at every rung of the corporate word and government office.

Time is up on lazy hiring, poor support structures, and narrow thinking as it becomes increasingly clear that we need to enable the talent before us beyond lip service and half-hearted efforts to achieve gender parity. To build an inclusive workplace, we’ll need all hands — male and female — on deck.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Tamsin Jones

    Tamsin Jones is a social entrepreneur known for the design and development of successful high-impact new initiatives or investments. She is co-founder of TheBoardroom Africa to improve gender diversity at the top of business and Cape Town's premier tech innovation and entrepreneurship hub, Workshop17.
  • Marcia Ashong

    Marcia Ashong is co-founder and executive director of TheBoardroom Africa. She was recently named amongst Ghana's 20 under 40 business leaders, and is published with the Oxford Journal of World Energy Law, where she made contributions on global trends in local content regulations in oil and gas. She is passionate about the opportunity to impact policy in the natural resource space, and is an avid blogger and speaker on gender equality and the impact of women in leadership.