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What Companies Need to Do to Improve Working Conditions for Women

Ellen Kossek is one of America’s leading social scientists, with an extensive career examining employment practices to advance gender equality and diversity. Her upcoming book, Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations: Lessons from Research and Practice, is a collection of a series of essays from the nation’s leading researchers and practitioners on gender inclusion in the workplace. 

The book offers empirically based guidance for HR leaders seeking pathways to harmonious and inclusive working environments that unleash the enormous potential to be gained from a truly diverse workplace. It doesn’t shy away from some contentious issues, such as addressing the near-total absence of women CEOs as well as the impact of the #MeToo movement on intra-office dynamics.

We sat down with Kossek to discuss gender inclusion in the workplace.

BRINK: Women constitute only 4.6% of CEO positions, and that number is even less among Fortune 500 companies. What should companies be doing to foster female leadership?

Ellen Kossek: The first thing companies need to worry about is how to increase the pipeline. You can’t just say you’re going to hire more women next week. Progressive companies are starting programs with high school and college students to increase interest in their companies. 

They’re also looking at their selection requirements for C-suite positions. Sometimes they’ll find out that some requirement they had in the past on a personality test or a global position was having an adverse impact on some of their high-talent women. For example, women are more likely to be in dual-career marriages, and that’s a challenge because they don’t have a spouse able to move overseas. Women are also more involved in caregiving. Some companies have looked at these requirements and tried to assess if they’re really necessary for identifying talent. 

Companies should also look at what happens to men and women in their careers at about 6 or 7 years in. Many companies are finding that they’re hiring men and women at equal numbers at entry level, and then something happens at about 6 or 7 years in where women are leaving. It could be partly due to lack of policies and flexibility for families, as well as a chilly climate that’s not supportive of listening to women.

BRINK: Your book goes into detail about discrimination going beyond direct forms of discrimination to include day-to-day inherent biases. How are you seeing these inherent biases currently manifesting in organizations?

Kossek: In very subtle ways. Companies are smart enough to get rid of overt discrimination. Where it’s playing out is in a number of areas. One is in performance appraisal. A Stanford University study found that women were getting better performance ratings than men, but it wasn’t translating over into higher pay. And in some of those performance appraisals, women were getting feedback on personality and style, and less on the technical job requirements. 

A second way is the narratives being told about what makes a good leader. When reviews are being held for high-potential employees, characteristics that aren’t often identified in talented women are often talked up. Startup cultures, in particular, will talk about rock stars, and that’s not always equated with a feminine image.

And then there’s the issue of face time and the hours worked. If women are still caring for families, leaving early and jumping back online at night, but nobody knows, that could get in the way of assessing talent.

BRINK: We’ve seen many companies set up employee resource groups (ERGs) to foster greater diversity, on both gender and racial bases. What is your assessment of ERGs? Are they enough?

Kossek: They’re a good start, but they’re not enough if they’re done for “Stage 1.” Stage 1 ERG is when you’re bringing people together so they have peer networks and safe spaces to talk to people of similar social identities. That’s really important; I don’t want to underestimate that social support, but I do think the most successful companies do a number of things. 

They have a sponsor at a higher level that’s integrated into the ERG so the issues can be linked to senior management. Some companies keep membership open to anyone so it’s not just viewed as an intra-group rivalry, but so anyone who’s supportive of those issues can participate. The best companies link these identity groups to workforce transformation. So it’s not just diversity and inclusion as a separate bucket in these ERGs, but you use them to have conversations. I know a utility company in Nebraska that’s very successful, where the CEO will have open forums to talk about where the business is going.

BRINK: You note in your book that the #MeToo movement is discouraging male leaders from acting as mentors to female employees. What would you say to male leaders who fear taking on female protégés out of concern for accusations of inappropriate behavior? 

Kossek: First, that has to start with the leadership and human resources to give out communication for strong cross-gender or same-gender mentorships. There are some rules that could be followed to encourage mentoring, but also protect employees. For example, if you’re going on a business trip, maybe you bring a third person. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as a pair, but you have others join. Companies that say, “oh the #MeToo movement, we can’t mentor” — that’s a cop out; you just have to come up with rules for safety and ensuring the conversations are protecting the rights of leadership and protégés. 

BRINK: This is an interesting quote from your book on diversity: “It is the multiple and intersecting identities of gender and race that interact to produce a distinctly different outcome as a result of the presence of leaders who are women of color.” What are companies missing out on by not creating diverse environments, particularly where the intersection of race and gender are concerned?

Kossek: Companies shouldn’t look at race as a binary variable, but rather they should think about the nuances. A person who is Latino might bring different issues than a person who is African American or someone who comes from a religious minority. When you have so many different identities, and then you intersect them with gender, it opens up a window to many cultures of the world and also within your society. They’re all unique experiences. 

Some people would say women of color helped start the feminist movement because they were always working and having children. Sometimes, people who are of other nationalities are immigrants or refugees and bring to work the deep experience of resilience. 

We really need to think about careers differently, and millennial men would like that as well. Many professional full-time jobs today are 60 hours a week, and that’s turning people off. 

Looking at social identities across race and ethnicity is really important to making your company tap into the workforce of tomorrow. In states like Texas, racial minorities are the majority, and this is part of your business adapting to the new workforce.

BRINK: You speak of the need for companies to ensure “psychological safety” in order for diverse teams to thrive. What do you mean by that?

Kossek: Psychological safety is a concept that Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has done a lot of research on. It’s basically the idea that people feel safe in a group to speak up and be their authentic true selves. That might include saying things they think are wrong without being retaliated against or stigmatized. In diverse teams, it takes a while for different members to have trust. 

Some minorities face the need for code-switching, or adjusting their speech based on who they’re talking to. We want people to be professional, but we also want them to be their true selves. Sometimes in the corporate world, we value a culture of homogeneity. We need to support different ways of expression and make it safe for people at lower-levels of the firm, who are more likely to be diverse, to say what’s on their minds. 

BRINK: Creating a diverse work environment also means creating the conditions that allow women to balance their work life with their roles outside of the workplace. Are companies doing enough to create these conditions? 

Kossek: The short answer is no. Many companies offer different types of flexible policies, from flextime to telework. But women are still taking up more of those policies than men. If you’re using it for family reasons, it’s frowned upon — you’re looked as not career-oriented. 

We have this vision of a successful lawyer or consultant, and the only way we’re going to get parity is if we have equal takeup of flexibility programs for men and women, for personal and family needs. We don’t do that right now. Women are still the heavier users.

Studies show that while younger men value gender equality more, women are still doing more of the domestic tasks. What I would like to see is companies rewarding more time off for family needs. Careers are not a sprint, but a marathon, and you’re going to lose talent if you don’t allow people to have their work lives fit well with their personal lives.  

BRINK: Pew Research recently revealed that women are increasingly being employed in jobs that require social, critical thinking and analytical skills, which is resulting in a narrowing of the wage gap. Why are we seeing a trend toward more women in these roles?

Kossek: One trend might simply be that women are getting the majority of college degrees. There will be a talent shortage if we aren’t using equal parity in hiring women. 

We’re not letting in as many immigrants into the United States as we have in the past. All the economic trends show that countries can only grow if they have strong labor talent. So either you take up women in the market or you replace your labor pool with young immigrants. And if we’re not doing the latter, companies have to turn to women. 

So in some ways, it’s a good thing, and the talent has always been there. 

BRINK: Forty percent of women with engineering degrees quit or never enter the field. What is preventing women in STEM from progressing in their fields?

Kossek: Many of the STEM cultures are strong masculinity cultures. They’re long hours, they’re macho environments. Many of these STEM jobs have labs, you have to get money, large grants, they’re not terribly friendly to personal life. After getting a master’s degree or Ph.D., some of the jobs aren’t conducive to finding a partner or getting married and starting a family. 

So we really need to think about careers differently, and millennial men would like that as well. In some countries, there’s not going to be enough work for everybody. Why do we have to wait until we have too many people in the workforce until we start thinking about restricting to a 40-hour week? I’ve studied reduced-load work in some 20 companies in Canada and the U.S., and many professional full-time jobs today are 60 hours a week, and that’s turning people off. 

BRINK: If you’re speaking to a CEO who says they want to change a culture of masculinity in their company, what would you say to them?

Kossek: One thing to do would be to cluster-hire women. That way, they’re not viewed as the only one. This is a way to start changing culture. If women are tokens, it’s not going to shift the culture. It takes a long time for organizational culture to shift, and it starts with the top as well. Maybe you hire from other companies that are more gender-balanced because you don’t want to wait for organizational learning to occur in 20 years. You have to change who’s in your company to get that balance. Representation matters.

BRINK: Automation is going to affect certain jobs dominated by women. Office workers and administrative assistants, for example, have been identified as being at high-risk of automation, while there may be growth in other areas of the industry. How can companies take the lead in managing the inevitable transfer of skills and mitigate against the particularly negative impacts on women in high-risk automation jobs?

Kossek: What we need to do is ensure everyone, not just women, is engaged in lifelong learning. As you see, these jobs become automated, give a lot of support and flexibility for employees to go back to school or do on-the-job training. Don’t wait until things are automated and say, “sorry, you don’t have a job anymore.” Start giving incentives. 

Companies should be anticipating what the new jobs are going to be with automation and what skills are going to be needed. Hiring from those within who are willing to retrain is a smart move and will save money because they already know the culture of the company.

Ellen Kossek

Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at the Krannert School of Management, Purdue University

Ellen Ernst Kossek is the Basil S. Turner professor of Management and the research director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.

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