New research from Bain & Company shows consistent motivations across women and men, but outcomes that vary significantly due to occupation choice, prioritization of flexibility, and the perpetuation of biases.
Understanding the differences—and similarities—between women and men at work is critical for addressing gender parity and winning the war for talent.
The last several years have led to substantial disruption in global workforces and talent shortages from the Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, the great resignation, rising inflation and potential recession. New Bain & Company research shares that women still make up less than 40% of the global workforce, and participation is declining in many faster-growing, lower-income countries with more non-college-educated women, like India and Nigeria. Women can be a key part of the talent shortage solution. Despite different starting points and cultural contexts, every country has an opportunity to bring more women into the workforce, in order to meet talent needs and advance women's empowerment. Understanding the differences—and similarities—between women and men at work is critical for addressing gender parity and winning the war for talent.
"While the outcomes of women and men and the workforce vary, the motivations are strikingly similar," said Bianca Bax, an expert partner and EMEA DE&I leader, Bain & Company. "Men and women have consistent motivations when it comes to work, across factors like financial orientation and camaraderie. They also have similar attitudes on inclusion, with fewer than 30% feeling included in the workplace."
With intrinsic motivations similar, but outcomes so diverse, Bain & Company's research takes a look at the three meaningful imbalances that are often at the heart of the gap between women and men in the workforce:
Occupation choice can be rooted in early childhood expectations: Although there has been progress, there is still gender bias in occupation choices. Women hold just 25% of US computing jobs and 13% of engineering jobs. This bias is ingrained at an early age often in early childhood experiences and expectations. In fact, studies have shown that by the age of seven, girls choose more "caring" careers, like teaching and healthcare, and boys choose more stereotypically masculine careers, like engineering. With the education gap closing globally, there is still areas of opportunity. Women earning bachelor's degrees in computer science declined from 33% in 1980 to 21% in 2018. The situation is similar globally.
Flexibility is a catch-22: Men and women cite flexibility as a common interest when starting the workforce, but in some countries as they age, flexibility grows in importance for women and declines for men. Part-time work often keeps women in the workforce but is one of the main contributors to the pay gap. In the US, twice as many women work part time than men (of those, nearly 9 times more women voluntarily work part time due to family needs). The share of women in part-time work is even higher in many European countries. Three-quarters of Dutch women work part time, mostly to balance childcare and work.
Workplaces are still biased: Many workplace behaviors and structures are rooted in conscious and unconscious bias. This leads to differential treatment for women. This is often seen as women not receiving sponsorship, often asked to take on the majority of administration work and cultural double standards focused on traditional promotional ladder.
"Successful firms of the future will embrace gender equality among policies (i.e. similar parental leave for all caregivers) along with a move to take a "passport" approach to their careers— where individuals can explore different roles, flexible work, and on- and off-ramps as part of their career journey," said Andrew Schwedel, partner at Bain & Company and co-chair of the firm's think tank, Bain Futures. "This cultural change, paired with actions to increase the number of women in leadership roles, can reset the value systems to be more equitable at all levels of the organization."
Leading firms will proactively address the gender imbalances that hold women back, with senior leaders championing the efforts, to attract and retain top talent. This is critical during a time of continued disruption and talent shortage. The following five imperatives begin to tackle the deeply rooted gender imbalances Bain & Company found in its research with the potential to not just empower women but improve the overall workforce.
Be wary of averages: No demographic group is all the same and it is important that companies recognize that multiple factors make up someone's lived experience.
Actively fight gender bias: Firms can actively challenge bias by elevating diverse role models, ensuring equal access to sponsorship, promoting allyship, and embedding concrete bias mitigation efforts. To address gender bias within the firm, many companies offer gender-neutral paid parental leave. Bain & Company announced this policy for its employees in July 2022.
Instill inclusive practices: Fewer than 30% of women and men feel fully included at work, so there is plenty of opportunity for improvement. Additionally, employees both men and women who feel excluded are more likely to quit. So inclusive practices are critical for attracting and retaining top talent. Leaders have a responsibility to adopt inclusive behaviors. For example, the daily interactions employees have with supervisors play a large role in building—or eroding—confidence and ambition and impacting how included the employee feels.
Champion flexible workers: The pandemic has disrupted the traditional model of working in an office showcasing employees can be productive at home and that employees often enjoy working from home as an option. More than 60% of US workers don't want to return to the office full time. Companies have an opportunity to redefine office norms, expectations and ensure continued advancement of employees regardless of work model. Equitable treatment of employees regardless of working choice is critical for success. At Bain & Company, workers across tenure levels can move to part-time (often 60% or 80% time) arrangements while continuing to advance, and models of success are championed.
Nearly three-quarters of women trying to return to work after a voluntary leave have trouble finding a job. Companies have an opportunity and can tap into this labor market with the right programs that set up individuals for success as the on-ramp back to work.
Unlock new talent pools through reskilling and returners programs: Women left the workforce in spades during the pandemic and now have the opportunity to solve the talent shortage. Roughly 90% of women want to return to the workforce, but only 40% actually do. Nearly three-quarters of women trying to return to work after a voluntary leave have trouble finding a job. Companies have an opportunity and can tap into this labor market with the right programs that set up individuals for success as the on-ramp back to work.
Making progress on women and men's outcomes in the workforce is a multiyear journey and not a quick fix. However, by beginning to implement some of these strategies, firms of the future can combat the current talent shortage and redefine the current work environment increasing opportunities and feelings of inclusion across all workers.
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