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Has the playing field been levelled? Exploring the differences in women and men’s career advancement

Updated: Apr 24, 2023



One of the most important areas of concern for gender equality in the workplace is career development. Despite new data showing improvements, there are still discrepancies between how men and women are encouraged and advanced in their careers. In this post, we'll look at how men and women face different opportunities for career advancement, and also steps employers can take to ensure both are equally encouraged to pursue their development.

The possibility of progression is one of the biggest discrepancies between males and women's job development. Women are much less likely than men to be promoted to managerial positions, according to a McKinsey & Company study. Cited in this report, just 87 women were promoted to managerial positions for every 100 men. For women of colour, this difference is considerably greater. While this number has improved year over year, there is still a gap in the data showing men are more likely to receive a promotion than their female counterparts.

Not only is it unfair that women have limited job development possibilities, but it also hurts businesses. According to research, organisations with more diverse leadership teams outperform their competitors financially. Referencing another study by McKinsey & Company, businesses with higher gender diversity (executive and leadership roles with at least 30% female representation) were 25% more likely to have higher profitability than businesses with lower gender diversity.

However, women are starting to make the changes themselves if their employer is unwilling to do so, and companies that do not focus on implementing fair and equal standards will face challenges ahead. According to the same report, “More women leaders are leaving their companies. Now companies have a new pipeline problem. Women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen—and at a much higher rate than men leaders.”

Why are they leaving? The top three reasons include wanting to advance but not seeing the same opportunities as their male counterparts, being overworked and under recognized, and desiring a change in their work culture. This shows the significance of offering fair and equal opportunity in the workplace, as talent attraction and retention will suffer if it is not promoted.

So what can businesses do to ensure they are not only attracting and retaining women, but valuing them, providing equal opportunity, and ensuring all are welcomed in all levels of the company?

Think about women’s careers, step-by-step: Universum’s research shows that women value training and development — it’s a top 10 issue in 13 out of 14 countries, and ranks #1 globally. Women want to invest in their own career growth and success. But building robust training and leadership-development programs isn’t enough. To grow and advance, women also need to know there is a career ladder they can travel within the company. Otherwise, in order to move up the ladder, they must “move out” to another company. So, just as important as training is offering a clearly defined career ladder and the ability to grow, step-by-step, on the job — from entry-level jobs to leadership-level positions, and each step in between.

Pay special attention to the first steps in the career ladder: Research has shown that workforce gender imbalances begin to multiply at the first rung in the career ladder (i.e., first promotion). As the Wall Street Journal reports, “while many employers have increased their efforts to groom and elevate more senior women—a smaller, select group—fewer have applied the same rigor to cultivating more junior female managers.” As a first step, find out where your talent pipeline for women is “leaky” — the spots where women are either not advancing at the same rate, or voluntarily leaving the company. By understanding the “when and why,” employers can design solutions to help correct imbalances throughout women’s careers and their development.  

Develop country-level strategies: The career goals and aspirations of women in China differ from those in France, which differ again from women in South Africa. It’s absolutely critical to explore these variables and develop messaging and engagement that honor these local differences.

Invest in representation: The best way to attract more women is to … employ more women! Most women do not want to be the ‘token’ female in the office. Gender balance has a big impact on your company’s attractiveness as an employer — and companies with low ratios of women in both entry, mid, and high level roles need to work twice as hard to fix the equation.  

And while you’re working to increase your representation, make sure your efforts are visible to potential candidates. “There have definitely been times that I have decided not to apply for a job because it doesn’t seem like somewhere that I would fit in. Diversity initiatives tell me that even if a company appears to be male-dominated, they are trying to address a gender imbalance and actively want women to apply.” 

Lastly, Think about belonging: Beyond engagement, how can your company foster a sense of belonging for employees — particularly when working in particularly male dominated companies or career fields. By understanding what it means to belong, clearly defined strategies can be put forward to enhance and develop equal representation in the work force.

While discrepancies between men and women's career growth that have long-term effects for women's financial security and job advancement still exist, the numbers are improving year over year. It is important to make sure that this continues to rise and goals are set to strive for equality, representation and opportunities. Companies can take a range of actions to address these concerns, and they have a significant role to play in promoting gender equality in the workplace. Businesses can create an environment that is more equitable and effective for all employees by fostering diversity and inclusion and putting into practise fair and impartial recruiting and promotion policies.

Unsure of how to implement these practices and broadcast them to potential and existing talent? Enroll in the employer branding academy today to ensure you are up to date with the latest trends, concepts and tools for promoting what you and your company stand for!

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