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The ‘Three As’ of Advocating for Women

How to use the science behind inclusion to close the workforce gender gap

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Dr. Janet Ahn is Chief Behavioral Science Officer at Mind Gym, a behavior change company that has helped business leaders transform their organizations for over 20 years.
Dr. Janet Ahn is Chief Behavioral Science Officer at Mind Gym, a behavior change company that has helped business leaders transform their organizations for over 20 years.

As America faces compounding crises— fighting COVID-19, rebounding the economy, and grappling with racial injustice— we cannot ignore the cataclysmic problem of more women dropping out of the workforce than ever before. Women are downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This gender gap is a workforce emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders, particularly women of color—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity. Company leaders must take intentional steps to combat this trend before it is too late.

Since the start of the pandemic, women have suffered a net loss of 1 million more jobs than men. 600,000 more women have exited the workforce than men. And in December of last year, Black, Hispanic, and Asian women accounted for the entirety of job losses in the United States.

This gender inequity is not new. The pandemic is exacerbating long-standing biases and obstacles facing women in the workforce. As you go higher up the corporate ladder, there are fewer women, indicating a leaky pipeline for women in leadership. And for women of color, these barriers are compounded by issues of racism and racial violence.

“The diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges women face in the workforce run deep. Fortunately, there are solutions rooted in behavioral psychology that organization leaders can use to make tangible, lasting changes for the women currently in their workforce and the next generation of women leaders.”

Behavioral science research shows us how pervasive assumptions and biases about women and feminine characteristics play a key role in blocking the advancement and retention of women in the workplace. Women are assumed to be nurturing and community oriented, rather than competitive and achievement driven. These biases often turn into prescriptions for how women should and should not be, and they are penalized for violating such expectations.  

Women experience these biases at home by taking on disproportionately more visible or physical labor (e.g., housework) and invisible or mental labor, such as managing others’ feelings and mentally keeping track of the family’s calendar and to-dos, compared to their male counterparts, whether they are employed or not.

At work, women tend to take on more administrative tasks that are necessary to keep an organization running, rather than just focusing on important strategic projects. The time and energy spent fulfilling these necessary but ultimately less meaningful activities costs women in their performance reviews and advancement.

Women of color experience even further challenges: double jeopardy and invisibility. Double jeopardy refers to the compounded experience of discrimination that, for example, a Black woman faces as a result of being both Black and female, while the lack of recognition for her unique intersectional identity results in invisibility.  

The complexity of these biases is visible in the fallout from the 2018 Australian Open Final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Williams was penalized for smashing a racket and complaining to the umpire about a call, actions lauded as passionate and competitive when displayed by male counterparts like Novak Djokavic or Andy Roddick. Williams, however, faced intense public criticism, including one major newspaper printing a grossly racist cartoon that simultaneously caricatured her as an “angry Black woman” and erased Osaka’s Japanese-Haitian identity by replacing her with a white player. These cognitively and emotionally exhausting interactions are what women of color constantly have to contend with.

It is the responsibility of organizational leaders to help mitigate these biases. Research shows there are clear and simple techniques that I refer to as “The three A’s of advocating for women”:

1. Act as an upstander vs. bystander. 

If you’re in the room (physically or virtually) and you hear something being said (or not said when it should be) – speak up. An ally is someone who uses their own privilege to challenge systems and processes that offer opportunities only to a fortunate few. In a leadership role, you can create new processes, systems and behaviors that are rooted in equality.

2. Amplify her influence by creating a safe space

If a woman is the only female in the room, it automatically signals to her that she does not belong. Avoid relegating her to engaging in administrative tasks, for example taking notes during the meeting, and instead actively include her in the discussion so she can contribute to more important strategic work.

3. Accelerate advancement and behave as a role model. 

If you’re in a position of authority, promote women. Resist the Queen Bee syndrome, the phenomenon of women in senior positions perceiving other women in more junior positions as a threat, thereby stagnating their advancement. There is room for all of us – we can and need to lift each other up.

The diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges women face in the workforce run deep. Fortunately, there are solutions rooted in behavioral psychology that organization leaders can use to make tangible, lasting changes for the women currently in their workforce and the next generation of women leaders.

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