When it comes to professional success, no matter the role or type of work, gender representation matters. Not for the sake of having a gender balance in the workplace, but because people will believe what they can see.
Before 2021, many people may not have thought it possible — or appropriate — that two women be seated on the dais behind the President of the United States during a joint address to Congress. And yet, it happened, and as a result, girls and women everywhere now see that it is possible for women to hold positions so important that they deserve to sit there. This representation in power is exciting and inspiring, but we still have a long way to go.
Last year, Business Insider reported that the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 had risen to an all time high — a pitiful 8%. And in terms of what women have to do to get there, well, the gender gap begins to widen all the way down at the bottom rung of the leadership ladder: promotion to manager.
Managerial positions are the step up to higher-level roles, yet men still outnumber women 2 to 1 here. What’s wrong with this picture? Women certainly don’t make up only 8% of the workforce (try 47%), and studies have even shown that women-led companies perform better than ones run by men. So why aren’t we seeing more women in leadership positions?
Maternity is an unnecessary barrier to career growth
Over the course of the pandemic, many parents and caregivers have had to stay home to work, a situation that often accompanies keeping children occupied and on track with online schooling during the workday. As keeping up with both work and childcare became more of an obvious struggle, some asked, “How do women professionals balance caregiving and their careers?” And particularly after the last year, the resounding answer to that question is, “They don’t.”
Considering maternity leave, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world to not guarantee paid family and medical leave. And businesses are not required to hold jobs for women who choose to take maternity leave. So, when confronted with the decision to keep their job or care for their child, the job often comes second.
"The repercussions of taking time off from work for maternity leave not only affect future earnings, but they frequently diminish professional opportunities."
It’s no surprise, then, that almost half of millennials say a woman who wants to reach a top position in business is better off waiting to have children until she is well established in her career. Ah, the double-edged sword of childbirth: both a “miracle” and a career-ender.
A study from 2019 showed that “only 27.8 percent of women are in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90 percent of new fathers. And while 26 percent of men have been promoted or moved to a better job in the five years following childbirth, the figure is just 13 percent for women.” If these numbers didn’t punch you in the gut, read them again. The repercussions of taking time off from work for maternity leave affect not only future earnings, but they frequently diminish professional opportunities.
According to the Harvard Business Review, during the pandemic, “Among different-sex couples who remained employed in remote-eligible jobs, research shows that paid work hours declined particularly sharply for mothers of children under age 12. Although the gender gap in employment subsided over the summer of 2020, a large unemployment spike among women age 20 and over occurred in September, especially for those in their 30s and 40s — which was likely attributed to the start of the school year.”
This trend hints at the classic stereotype — and unfortunate reality — that women are more likely to be the stay-at-home parent (in a heterosexual relationship). In fact, the United States Census Bureau found that, during the pandemic, women ages 25–44 have been almost three times as likely as men to not work because of childcare responsibilities. As this exacerbates the gender gap in the workforce, the disparity will be harder to resolve in the future.
For many women who were able to continue to work, protecting their careers was largely possible because more men in the home started to take on childcare and household responsibilities. It’s clear that if women are given the chance, the bandwidth, and the support they need, they can be both caregivers to their children and successful professionals. Women really can “do it all,” especially if they aren’t doing it all.
Today, many businesses are recognizing the long-term advantages of offering significant paid parental leave, including Faraday. Now offering up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave, we provide employees with a few ways to utilize their time away from work, as we know that there is not always a “one size fits all” approach to expanding a family. Offering this benefit — especially for working mothers — can help ease families’ financial stress and worries around returning to work or retaining employment. Additionally, paid parental leave has become a must-have for many people on the job hunt; offering this benefit can definitely give businesses an edge when they’re hiring.
While many parental leave policies are much shorter in comparison to other industrialized countries (Norway provides 49 weeks with full pay for new mothers), businesses that are committing to the wellbeing of their employees and stepping up to improve paid leave benefits are forging a new path in the right direction.
Investment — literal and figurative — flows to men
Women don’t lack ambition. What they do lack is representation in leadership roles, mentorship, and business investments. (And if you’re a woman of color, these opportunities dwindle even further.) Entering a workforce historically dominated by men leaves women to their own devices when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.
From being passed over for promotions in favor of a male colleague to receiving less pay for the same work, there has never been a time when women don’t experience sexism in the workplace — blatant or otherwise. Businesses failing to promote women have led to a noticeable absence in equal gender representation in leadership roles, despite women scoring higher than men in leadership skills and employees benefiting from women-led companies.
It’s clear that if women are given the chance, the bandwidth, and the support they need, they can be both caregivers to their children and successful professionals.
The most egregious barrier to higher professional achievement, in my opinion, occurs when we break down venture capitalist investments by gender. Venture capitalist money is highly sought after, especially with the boom of “unicorn” companies over the last decade in the direct-to-consumer space. But when it comes to actually funding these companies, in 2019, women-founded brands only received 2.8% of investors’ money. With the pandemic raging in 2020, it dropped to 2.3%.
What’s more, when a man is added to the founding team pitching to these investors, the number shoots up closer to 10%. Perhaps because 91% of decision makers at investment firms are men (and two-thirds of those firms don’t have any women investors), it’s easier to choose to invest in a business led by another man. As humans, we do tend to stick to what feels familiar.
That being said, the past year brought a lot of long-avoided issues to light, namely that of racial diversity of investors and their portfolios. An article in Forbes notes that a report found that “1% of the $70 trillion wealth management industry is controlled by women or minority fund managers.” This greatly influences which businesses end up with funding, and which go without.
2019, women-founded brands only received 2.8% of investors’ money. With the pandemic raging in 2020, it dropped to 2.3%.
In light of this, investment firms — intentionally made up of minorities and underrepresented groups — focused on funding companies founded by women and minorities are cropping up. Though most don’t seem to be flush with the cash that longstanding investors have access to (yet!), this is a big step in the right direction. Founders want to pitch to investors who understand and share their experiences and will validate the potential of their ideas. If we can get more women in the room as investors, the road to success will be considerably smoother.
Want to drive growth? Focus on women
Increasing gender diversity is a priority for around 87% of North American companies today, so there is a light at the end of this tunnel. As more women entrepreneurs — and even just everyday consumers — are increasingly vocal about the lack of representation, support, and funding for women-led businesses, the pressure is on.
This is reinforced by the spending power women have in the economy, which outweighs men’s. Women drive most consumer purchases of goods and services, not only for themselves as individuals, but on behalf of their families as well. And they are more likely to be brand-loyal, a trait that grows when that brand promotes being women-owned and/or operated. So, when it comes to developing products, driving a brand’s look and voice, and even choosing marketing channels, a top consideration should be how women consumers are likely to engage. And the decision makers in charge of guiding these choices should be women.
So, how do we get there?
The path to leadership for women in the workplace
We have to prioritize women — especially indigenous women and women of color — when hiring, offering professional development opportunities, shaping parental leave policies, and building out managerial and C-suite teams.
To start, women need to connect with other women. Professional networking events exclusive to women-identifying persons can more easily open avenues to professional development that may otherwise not be available. This could look like getting a reference for a significant job opportunity to further a career, or perhaps the beginning of a meaningful mentorship.
Entering a workforce historically dominated by men leaves women to their own devices when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.
These things may feel out of reach for many women professionals, especially those just starting out or who have made recent career changes. Regardless of how they manifest, I believe that these connections can prove vital to a woman’s success in the workplace, especially as “bro culture” continues to reign in the quickly growing tech realm, where women can find it difficult to get a foothold.
Additionally, companies should support professional development courses — from Adobe product courses to coding — so that women can sharpen skills that can help them excel. Giving them tools that can better support their day-to-day work, as well as contribute to their professional skillset that may land them a job in the future, not only increases positive engagement as an employee, but actively tells women that their work and knowledge is valuable and worth investing in — because it is.
Providing women in the workforce with the support, tools, and mentorship necessary to propel them to the top of the corporate ladder — and keep them there! — is going to be what drives businesses’ future innovation, revenue, and efficiency. Perhaps it will even create a plethora of more sustainable, mindful business practices. A girl can dream!
Want to learn more about women-led businesses? Check out our Ritual customer spotlight, where we share some of the things we love about this vitamin company founded by Katerina Schneider.