Every year, I see celebrations of women on International Women’s Day, and it makes me happy. I know the work it takes for anyone to breakthrough in their chosen career, let alone those who face additional barriers or obstacles. Yet at the same time, I’m conflicted. I want to celebrate women, but I also want an International Women’s Day that tackles the systems that hold women back in the first place. I want women to be celebrated for little things throughout their lives, not just the most successful among us — and I want to live in a system where that’s incredibly normal.
As a workplace design consultant with my company Bloom, I’ve seen a lot of systems that need to be dismantled — from backchannel recruiting to ignoring mental health in the workplace. But I’ve also seen policies and procedures that have great foundations and could be significantly more inclusive with some evolution. With that in mind, here are five workplace systems I think have a good base, but need to evolve.
Evolution 1: From maternity leave to parental leave
Maternity leave was created for biological women who give birth to their own children. This foundation needs to remain to protect and support birthing mothers. The evolution I propose is to extend those same protections to all parents, regardless of gender or birthing status. I want a world where two queer women adopting a child can also take time to bond with their new kid. Same for two gay men. Or a straight man who wants to take time off to bond with his child alongside his partner. Further, these policies should take into account both edge cases like a miscarriage or if an adoption doesn’t go through and the back to work plans for people who may be re-entering a very different company in a few months’ time.
Evolution 2: Awareness of admin work
Unfortunately, team admin work like note-taking in meetings is often pawned off to women — or women are assumed to want these admin roles. Admin is a valid job just like any other, but the problem is when women are pushed into these roles and not paid for their contributions. If you don’t have the budget to pay someone to focus on admin, then consciously think of who you are asking to take on “office housework” and why. From there, be diligent to ensure it’s not always the same person or always one gender doing it.
Evolution 3: Spreading unpaid executive labour around
When a company is working to hire an executive role, other executives will perform that role’s duties (unpaid) until a person is hired. Much like admin work, a significant portion of unpaid executive labour goes to women. I’ve spoken to multiple women startup executives — in roles such as Product or Marketing — that suddenly got the “HR file” thrown on their desk because the CEO hadn’t hired ahead of HR yet and assumes women are better at HR than men. This mentality is demeaning to women, insulting to men, and unhelpful for employees who get a poorly executed HR system. It needs to stop. Companies should either compensate people for taking on this kind of work or spread that work around. If every leader is mucking in for the good of the company, don’t push all the work onto one (type of) person.
Evolution 4: Fewer meetings
People are spending hours in meetings each week that could have been an email or done asynchronously. Since women take on most of the housework, even if they are the breadwinner in the family, they have to balance excessive meetings with family demands. Add in remote work, and it’s even worse. The “inclusion” solution here benefits everyone: fewer meetings. Genuinely ask why a meeting is necessary before booking it. If it’s to communicate something, send an email. For simple problem solving, try asynchronous meetings. If you need to meet, choose one outcome per meeting and send the agenda in advance so people can prepare.
Evolution 5: Leaders should ask for input from everyone
Leaders are tasked with making decisions that impact whole teams or companies. But they are not tasked with thinking for everyone. That job is unfair to both employees and leaders. Instead, leaders should ask their team what they need or what obstacles they face. Then use those inputs to make a holistic decision. This isn’t about pleasing everyone or forcing compromise. You don’t have to destroy your decision-making hierarchy. A big part of inclusion — for women especially — is knowing they can provide feedback that will be listened to. Give them that opportunity by asking for their insights when making decisions that affect them.
Evolution 6: Hire more women and set them up for success
A lot of companies now have programs to attract and retain more women-identifying employees. I love these, and I am happy companies are taking this action. But unfortunately, the glass cliff phenomenon — women coming in then dropping off before hitting senior ranks — is still too common. A big part of this is maternity leave and re-entering the workforce, which I mentioned above, but the other part is setting women (and all employees, really), up for success. This means implementing role guides, not just having job descriptions. It also means that regular performance management should focus on outcomes, being flexible on the “how” part. Of course, having fewer meetings and leadership taking input from all employees is a critical part of this step being successful.
Evolution 7: Equal Pay
According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation: “75 cents on average is earned by full-time working women in Canada for every dollar men make. The gap is wider for women who are Indigenous, living with a disability, racialized or newcomers. [Source: Statistics Canada.] 15.5 months is how long it takes women to earn what a man earns in 12, on average. [Source: Ontario Equal Pay Coalition.] Women with the same experience, socio-economic and demographic background earn approximately $7,200 less annually than their male counterparts.” [Source: Final Report: Ontario Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee.] On average, women in the United States are paid 20% less than men. And if you break it down by race and ethnicity, the pay gap is even worse — Black women are paid 38% less and Latinas are paid 47% less. As a result, the average woman misses out on more than $400,000 during the course of her career. This pay gap is wider in higher-paying industries and roles.
How can leaders close the gender pay gap?
- Post salary + compensation ranges on job postings
- Conduct a pay equity audit
- Build systems to ensure hiring and promotions are fair
- Offer training on self-advocacy for women at work
- Develop a structure and equitable systems for informal and formal negotiation opportunities at your organization
This isn’t about baby steps
After reading these evolutions, you might think I advocate for “baby steps.” That we should only change small things to make it more palatable. That is not the case. The changes I propose might seem insignificant, for instance changing one word in your leave policy from “maternal” to “parental,” but the impacts are huge for those who benefit. Further, these evolutions can get very complicated when you get down specific details, so I don’t want to present them as simple inclusion hacks.
The vision of International Women’s Day is to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of all women. I want to continue celebrating women, but I also want to evolve the systems we live and work in. Let this be my official wish for International Women’s Day this year and every year.
Happy #IWD to all of the women who inspire me to believe that this is possible.