Oscar winners down the ages have not shied away from using that stage to give voice to the social causes of their choosing. Among the speeches this year was Patricia Arquette’s impassioned espousal of equal pay and equal rights for women in the workplace. Perhaps this caught the attention because a significant part of the viewer population may have believed that this was essentially a solved problem. To hear her say bluntly “We don’t have equal rights for women in America.” to the enthusiastic support of celebrities like Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lopez and politicians like Chuck Schumer seems to have ignited a bit of a debate.
First do the facts support her contention? The numbers tell a tale:
- Women make up 46.8% of the US workforce despite being nearly 51% of the US population.
- Only 57.7% of women over the age of 16 are working – the corresponding number for men is over 70%.
- Women make up over 51% of the management and professional positions in the US economy but only 14.6% of the Executive positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by women. This number has stagnated at this level for over 5 years now.
- The pay disparity is also real – an oft repeated statistic is that the median earnings for women working full-time is only 77% of the comparable figure for men in the US. Even adjusting for several factors like hours worked and occupation shows a gap of 7%.
So what can be done to get more women into the workforce and to ensure that they get treated fairly while there?
Something that is often talked about is the need for flexibility – usually translated to mean allowing more freedom in work hours through policies like Work From Home. The argument on the effectiveness of WFH policies is heating up – companies like Yahoo and HP have recently scrapped their programs in the face of uncertain productivity impact. Two questions come up often – first it is not clear how focused employees can be on the task at hand while working in a distraction filled home environment. The other question is the lack of visibility whether the WFH employee is putting in adequate effort. These are “hits” against WFH policies in general but the doubts and recent restrictions seem to impact women employees more than men.
The other issue is the discrimination at the workplace. Research suggests that women are likely to work fewer hours than men. More than 26% of women choose to work part-time compared to only 13% of US men. There is also an ingrained but unstated assumption that lower hours by any employee, which may be women more frequently due to their home commitments, impacts their performance. It may be that the very same constraints of being in office for fixed time, results in women being much more focused at work and delivering equal productivity. Research conducted by Textio CEO Kieran Snyder across nearly 250 performance reviews showed that while 58.9% of the reviews of male employees contained critical feedback, as many as 87.9% of the reviews of women did so. The kind of feedback was also sharply divided – for men this tended to be largely developmental suggestions while those for the women tended to be significantly tilted towards making personality adjustments that required them to take a lower profile.
This is admittedly a complex issue but is there a solution? A possible approach here would be to embrace some form of self-quantification and enterprise and personal effort analytics. The ability to measure work effort and productivity can eliminate the perception issues. Knowing where your time goes can be a great help in making changes so you can focus more on the core tasks even in the face of distractions. The clarity this provides to the organization enables data driven decision-making in empowering employees and management towards productivity and wellness. This would allow a more nuanced approach to the WFH question – organizations could allow flexible working options in the case of emergencies and within reasonable bounds. Conventional wisdom is that family emergencies would impact working women more than men and such flexibility would thus benefit them. At the workplace also, accurate information obtained through a technology solution can form the basis for an objective assessment of the individual’s performance, man or woman, and eliminate the impact of preconceived notions.
Clearly a lot has to change – some of the change will be driven by the response to the voices of activists and the rest as the organizations realise the vast untapped potential out there. All we can say is, it is likely Patricia Arquette will approve.