Leadership: Committing to Closing the Workplace Gender Gap

I am very lucky to have four school-aged daughters--it is a pleasure to watch them grow, support them in their talents, and imagine all that they might achieve in their adult lives. I am a proud father full of all the hopes that every father has.

As the Dean of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia, however, I look at my girls through a more focused lens and think about the research on "women in the workplace" that I conduct and am exposed to on a daily basis. There are specific challenges that they are likely to face, based on gender, once they join the workforce.

At the most senior levels, American corporate leadership is strikingly male dominated--the Fortune 500 can only be reflected as a "Fortune 21" if you count those with women CEOs.

Only 16% of board seats and 14.2% of "top management" positions at S&P 500 companies are held by women. This isn't just an issue for large enterprises; it's much more difficult for women startup founders to secure venture capital funding than it is for their male counterparts.

As Dean of Columbia University's School of Professional Studies, I speak regularly with management from a wide range of companies--board members, CEOs, C-suite executives, and other divisional leaders. The vast majority are aware that this is a significant issue and I often find myself discussing academic research and what higher-education institutions are doing to help industry tackle the problem. Below are concrete action items that leadership can take to close the workplace gender gap.

Make the recruitment process more inclusive.

Many organizations' hiring processes and policies could be doing more to attract the largest, most talented pool of female candidates and ultimately increase the number of successful women recruits.

This can be a question of seemingly small details in some cases: research has found that the language in many companies' job announcements can be stereotypically masculine: "rock-star" coder, "hard-driving" environment, etc., leading to fewer female applicants and hurting diversity efforts at the onset of the process.

Demonstrate to candidates that your company is a welcoming place for women by 1) publicly showcasing the successes of female employees, 2) providing guidance on the language used in recruitment materials, and 3) working directly with universities and all-women's colleges to identify a diverse candidate pool. These are just a few steps that leadership can introduce to increase the number of female recruits.

Define the company culture.

"Culture fit" has become an important concept in recruiting circles of late. Certainly, culture is critical for any organization. At the same time, however, frequently speaking to the importance of culture fit, without strictly defining what it means and how it fits into the hiring process, can have a negative impact on efforts to increase diversity.

For companies where women are underrepresented, hiring for "culture fit" can tend to mean hiring people who are very similar to people who work there already... as in more men than women. Human Resource departments must partner with senior leadership to analyze and define what its current culture is and how it will make cultural changes that support its diversity goals as well as its core business goals.

Experiment with blind hiring.

While it may not be practical for all companies and roles, there has recently been an increase in the number of organizations experimenting with blind hiring. Particularly for technical positions, early screening can consist of giving candidates sample tasks resembling what they would do in the role. The reviewer sees only the candidates' work, not their resumes, or even their names, with the goal of eliminating unconscious bias.

Data from GapJumpers, a company that evaluates candidates using "blind hiring," showed that with standard recruiting processes, only 20% of candidates who were not white, able-bodied males from elite schools were interviewed; with blind screening, 60% of them were interviewed. This is a success case that industry should take lessons from and experiment with further.

Perform organization-wide pay audits.

Men are offered a higher salary than women for the same position 69% of the time.

Many companies have tackled this issue by performing organization-wide pay audits. Companies like Salesforce, SpaceX, and Apple have or have pledged to research pay patterns by gender and to correct any imbalances. Collecting and analyzing complete data on an organizational level is the first step towards being able to correct the issue.

Google has gone further than this first step. It bases salaries on market rates rather than on previous salaries and has managed to reach pay parity between genders. Management at other companies looking to recruit and retain female talent should consider their pay practices and strategies to overcome real or perceived differences in how men and women are compensated.

Evaluate company performance evaluations.

While entry-level jobs are not as unbalanced in terms of the ratio of males to females, the proportions become more skewed towards men as one moves towards the top of an organizational chart. This trend will surely improve, over time, as the younger generation grows up, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome.

Research has identified significant bias in performance reviews--women tend to get critiqued for issues that men don't, and they don't receive credit for as many of their accomplishments as men do.

And when an environment skews male in the number of employees, particularly in its leadership ranks, it can be hard for women to find the mentoring and support that often proves critical to obtaining top performance evaluations and advancing to the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Organizations need to invest in the support networks where women can help women, and all employees learn about, and respect, differences in work styles.

Increase equality to increase the bottom line.

Diverse companies tend to outperform others in a number of ways. For example, 1) companies with women who serve on the board outperform those with fewer on the board, 2) startups with women founders outperform those with only men by 63%, and 3) Goldman Sachs estimates that increasing labor force participation among women until it equals mens' would boost the US GDP by 9%.

The creation of evenly balanced organizations overall demands that everyone, men and women, take a hard look at workplaces. And, of course, this requires originated and sustained commitment from top leadership.

In this segment, I speak not only as a dean and leader of my own organization, but also as a father. It is time to scrutinize our work places more closely, starting at the top, and take concrete steps to end the gender workplace gap.