Management

Glass partitions: achieving women’s workplace potential needs a rethink of corporate governance

Aubrey Blanche, Head of Equitable Design and Impact at HR software company Culture Amp, explains how gender equality can be transformed from an aspiration into a fact.

As International Women’s Day in 2020 celebrates the enablement of women and people of other marginalised genders, we might take a moment to celebrate the long march towards more equitable rights and opportunities, given that FTSE 100 firms’ now have one third female board members and as initiatives like #Metoo are challenging and changing long-held practices and abuses.

Taking a deeper look at the 21st century workplace, we must ask if we are enabling women’s true potential as collaborators, innovators and leaders. Even as glass ceilings are cracking for white women, the evidence says companies are still maintaining unmistakable glass partitions at work, actively preventing women from achieving their potential - individually and for their organisation. Recent data reveal that these barriers are rooted in the way today’s organisations are governed, and, more widespread than we thought.

When we analysed 250,000 anonymised employee appraisals from companies around the world, we discovered clear evidence of widespread scepticism and disengagement. It’s not surprising: women feel they are not brought meaningfully into their company’s decision-making process, and often denied equitable career opportunities.

A governance issue

Take a glance at organisations’ governance. Asked if they are satisfied with how decisions are made, fewer than half of women (46%) said they were, compared with almost six in ten (58%) men. There was a bigger disparity over women’s inclusion in the decisions affecting their work, with 72% of men agreeing they were, with only 59% of women doing so. It’s no wonder that only 71% of women believe that people from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to succeed at their company 81% of their male colleagues do.

Women’s scepticism over the way people’s gender affects how they are assessed and valued is marked too. Our analysis shows that women are more likely to be given broad personality-based feedback than men, who receive skills-focused discussions. Women are still subject to The Abrasiveness Trap. This finding also echoes research in Harvard Business Review highlighting how the vagueness of appraisal feedback holds women back.

If these findings only confirm gender imbalance that we’ve long suspected, should they matter? Indeed they do. Well-known research from McKinsey showed companies with gender-diverse teams are more likely to have above average financial performance. In 2018, the Centre for Business and Economics research put the economic cost of gender-based workplace discrimination in the UK economy alone at £123 billion annually.

For International Women’s Day to realize its enabling mission for people denied equitable opportunities because of their gender, and organisations to create a more gender-balanced, happier and better-performing workforce, companies need to evolve four components of their governance.

A role for women

First, women and non-binary people need to be given a role in organisations’ decision-making: women - board members or not - need to be on companies’ executive, remuneration and audit committees to identify inequitable outcomes. Don’t take my word for it, either. While the Hampton-Alexander Review is doing a sterling job in calling out gender imbalance in FTSE 350 firms its greater legacy might be identifying those 35 FTSE 350 companies with all-male executive committees. Every one of those executives has the power and opportunity to sponsor and provide greater access to successors who don’t look like them.

Open communications

Second, we need more open and honest two-way communications, so management hears of women’s concerns, disillusionment and outright disengagement with their workplace. But communication won’t be enough; women and non-binary employees must be directly involved in design the solutions that are put in place to improve their experiences.

Avoiding bias

Third, we need to move away from ‘open box’ employee feedback and performance reviews that maximize the impact of bias - conscious and unconscious - on employee’s professional opportunities and advancement. The solution is simple, and made even easier with the ready availability of technology: ensure there are clear and pre-agreed performance criteria and skills-focused feedback. This leads not only to less bias in the process, but feedback that truly drives employee growth and performance.

Using the right language

Fourth, we need to change our language. It’s very common for people to conform to socially defined stereotypes - such as women being ‘nice’ and good at ‘emotionally managing others’ because they are required to - while often not being valued for the actual innovation they produce and results they deliver.

Executives and managers’ language in meetings and appraisals needs to be thoughtful about the way that these stereotypes influence their perceptions of female and non-binary employees; this shift will turn staff feedback, product development and executive committee meetings alike into more positive and practical insights.

International Women’s Day calls each of us to take action to realize a world in which gender equity is a fact, not an aspiration. Until we find ways to dismantle the glass partitions bias that constrain women and non-binary people’s true ability to collaborate, innovate and lead, many companies will continue to have under-engaged employees, undermining their innovative potential and financial performance.


Aubrey Blanche is The Mathpath and Global Head of Equitable Design and Impact at the people and culture platform, Culture Amp, helping the company and its customers think about their design of processes, programs, and products to promote fairness and a sense of belonging while enabling leaders and managers to set their goals while proactively identifying and removing barriers.

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