The Growing Case for Gender Diversity in the Workplace

Do women actually make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns? In a recent freakonomics podcast, Harvard University professor Claudia Goldin breaks down the data behind this widely cited stat. Goldin argues that, if you extract factors that are related to women’s choices, such as scaling back or leaving the workforce for family, the numbers start to look a lot more even. Is it women’s choices, then, that explain why only 23 CEOs among the S&P 500 are women?

If you take Goldin’s research debunking the gender wage gap at face value, it might seem like we’re finally close to reaching what the vast majority of Americans say they want – a just workplace that treats its employees fairly, regardless of gender. And some companies, like Amazon, say they have, in fact, closed the pay gap. But a superficial interpretation may be missing one of hardest-to-track aspects of inequality – cultural and institutional bias. In a new study illuminating perceptions of bias, by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, almost 30,000 male and female employees took part in surveys examining gender in the workplace. According to the study, women perceive the workforce as being ‘skewed’ in favor of men and believe that gender hinders their ability to advance. Women also expressed more likelihood of feeling excluded from important decisions. These attitudes get more intense the higher her position – only 28% of senior-level women were very happy in their careers, compared to 40% of men. (The fact that so few people are happy in their jobs, regardless of gender, is a separate subject worth exploring.)

The Lean In/McKinsey study points to an under-recognized element of of what makes our society just or unjust: even though the specific interactions that create large-scale perceptions of bias are more difficult to quantify, they have a measurable effect on workforce satisfaction and productivity. Built on layers of subtle interactions that accumulate over time, second-generation bias – less overt than in the past – has contributed to a disparity in treatment among male and female employees that has been proven time and again.

On top of this, growing evidence suggests that there is a clear business case for inclusive companies. A recently released study by researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Georgetown University found that companies with 30% female board members may be more profitable – by as much as 6% – in comparison to companies that have less than 30% female boards.

The weight of evidence telling us that eliminating bias is good for our culture and economics is massive, and growing every day. So why is knowledge – and positive intention – insufficient to change our behavior? In an interview in The Atlantic, Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely describes the school’s ongoing journey to eliminate gender bias in the classroom: “Our public recognition of the gender grade gap was the first, critically important step… It’s only in that community-wide conversation that the multitude of micro interactions, implicit biases, and traditional practices can be comprehensively addressed.” The first step, suggests Ely, is a collective, public, and institutional recognition of the problem. From there, organizations can re-build culture with justness at the center, rather than at the peripheries.

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