Small Business Guides

How to improve gender equality in the workplace

6 min read

Stereotypes are still an issue in business. Employees are often judged by their gender, not their abilities. As a business owner, how can you help change this situation – and get the best out of all your staff?

An everyday problem

Evidence of gender inequality and bias is all around us. Outdated beliefs about gender roles hold women back, and also have an impact on men.

This affects the career choices made by both sexes. It's especially an issue for women. That's because workplace prejudice can affect their salaries and career progression.

Some people still believe that men are better suited to some roles and women to others. This isn't just unfair and inaccurate. It also means businesses are failing to make use of the key skills of some of their employees.

Every employer can help fight gender stereotypes and prejudice. That's not just the right thing to do – it also makes good business sense. And in many countries it's a legal obligation.

So in this guide we'll look at some of the ways you can help improve gender equality in the workplace. We'll also explore what your business will gain by doing so.

Don't waste your resources

Businesses can't afford to waste resources – including human resources. Any assumptions you make about your staff mean you're potentially missing out.

For example, let's say you assume that one employee is better suited to a particular role than another, because of their gender. There's a good chance your assumptions may be damaging the competitive nature of your business. When you’re considering candidates for a role, make sure you:

  • never assume one person is better than another based on their gender
  • always evaluate, interview and observe each candidate
  • only make your decisions based on facts.
If you want your business to succeed, make sure you use all the resources at your disposal. That means staying impartial and free from prejudice.

Know your legal obligations

Sexual discrimination in the workplace is illegal in many countries. There are stiff penalties for businesses who are found to have broken the rules.

This shouldn't be the main driver of equality in your business. But it's another reason to be very careful not to discriminate based on gender.

Offer equal pay for equal work

Pay levels are still unequal for women and men. That's especially true in roles that have traditionally been male-dominated.

For example, here are some figures from the US Institute for Women’s Policy Research. It looked at median earnings in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The figures were $64,000 for women and $78,000 for men in 2013.

It's a similar story in the UK technology sector, according to the most recent information. This shows women earn less than men across all IT jobs for which data is recorded.

The biggest gap is in what the statistics call 'data processing and web portals'. Here men earn 37.1 percent more than women. The gap is smallest in programming, where men earn 22.5 percent more than women.

Pay gaps can be found in other areas of business too. So there's an obvious way for business owners to help redress the balance. Offer equal pay for equal jobs – including those that you might believe are 'male' jobs.

Challenge your own beliefs

Most people have general beliefs about those who are different to themselves. It's easier to make judgements about groups than about individuals. That's because it requires less mental energy.

But general judgements often become assumptions – and that's where most prejudice comes from. For example:

  • Do you believe all women are better in caring professions than all men?
  • Do you believe all men are better engineers than all women?

As you can see, writing down these assumptions shows how inaccurate they are. So challenge your own assumptions and beliefs about gender. Do they still seem right to you?

Encourage the use of mentors

Mentoring is a great way to build confidence in junior employees. It can help those who feel daunted by moving into roles traditionally dominated by the opposite sex. That's especially true for women.

So look out for people within your staff with the skills to coach, guide and support women. Mentors can provide encouragement, empathy and advice for aspiring younger employees.

Business owners can also encourage women to find mentors outside the business. If you struggle to find local mentors, try looking further afield. Contact industry associations and chambers of commerce. Get in touch with other business support agencies for advice and contacts too.

Know your role models

Statistics show that there are fewer women working at board level than men. When faced with this information in conversation, it helps to be armed with the names of some role models.

Let's look at the technology industry again, since this is traditionally male-dominated. Every year Forbes magazine publishes a list of the most powerful women in tech. They've all worked hard to improve gender equality in the workplace – and reached the top. The 2015 list includes the CEOs of YouTube, HP, Oracle, Xerox and Yahoo! It also includes the CFOs of Google and Microsoft, and the COO of Facebook.

Help promote gender equality in the workplace

Once you've ensured your own business is free from gender inequality, you can look further afield. As a business owner you have a great opportunity to help break down gender bias.

This is especially true if you're a female entrepreneur. Demonstrate that if you can be a success, so can others. Here are some ideas:

  • Go into a local school and tell the pupils what a successful businesswoman does.
  • Support local schemes designed to encourage girls’ interest in business. This might be by writing for their websites or sponsoring events.
  • Invite girls to your workplace where they can meet women at work.
  • Help out at after-school clubs, or even take on some teaching work.
  • Speak at a careers seminar.
  • Make yourself known to local business organisations.
  • Be available to champion women in business at local seminars and other events.

Ability isn't defined by gender

Whether you're hiring new staff or deciding who deserves promotion, forget about gender. It's not relevant to business success.

Make your decisions based on ability. Promote and hire the people best suited to the jobs you have in mind. Choose the ones who know how to do the work and have the confidence and personality to do it well.

This will help you improve gender equality in the workplace. You will get the added benefit that diversity in the workforce is a key driver of creativity. So not only will your business be a fair place to work – it's also likely to be more successful.