Simon Launay, Unsplash.

Making the Workplace Work for Women

We celebrated decades of progress with Women’s History Month in March, but more change is needed for equality in the workplace. 

When Kay Sargent started her career in interior design 40 years ago, the workplace felt like a  drab sea of cubicles and private offices—and there were very few women’s restrooms. 

“One of my first jobs was potty parity, because in Washington D.C., a lot of federal buildings didn’t have those restrooms for women, so literally, I went through these buildings and had to figure out how to reproportion all the men’s bathrooms to include those for women,” says Sargent, who is now director of workplace at HOK, a global design and architecture firm. 

“We’ve come a long way in some ways over the last four decades, but we still have a long way to go,” says Sargent.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we can acknowledge many wins that go beyond bathrooms: women make up 47% of the workforce, they now earn more degrees than men, and in the first part of 2023 they made up 31 % of new CEOs hired, marking an all-time high. Studies show that it’s not just a win for women themselves but the companies behind them: leadership teams with women tend to have better financial results, better profitability, better corporate governance, less turnover and ultimately they lead to improved employee satisfaction and more innovation

Women Face the Zoom Ceiling

Yet equality in the workplace is not there yet. Just one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, managerial white-collar jobs are largely filled by men, and the odds of promotions for men are about 1.5 times higher than they are for women. Women get paid, on average, 83.7% of what men are paid, and they are increasingly leaving the workforce due to a myriad of pressures, the lack of childcare being a big one. Men returned to work at pre-pandemic levels, there were more than 1.8 million fewer women working in January 2022 than there were in February 2020, according to WeWork’s 2022 State of the Women in the Workplace report

“We’ve kind of gone through the glass ceiling. Now, you have kind of the gray ceiling, and we have a little bit of a Zoom ceiling,” she says. “Women can be affected by all three.”

Teams with women lead to improved employee satisfaction., AdobeStock.

Gender Equality in the Workplace with Design

The inequality puts pressure on employers to ensure gender equality in the workplace, both culturally and physically. And it’s more important now than ever in today’s labor market. 

“When we talk with larger corporations and advise them on their office moves, we tell them, if they want to create a culture of trust, if you want people to come to your offices, you’re going to have to do that in a way that attracts female talent,” Robert Chmielewski, CEO of Sharespace, a Polish real estate leasing agency, told WorkLife News

While most interior designers are female, the office is still largely built for and designed by men, French designer Lisande Dingjan writes on LinkedIn

When we consider how to support women in the workplace with design, she suggests making the office more female-friendly by adding on-site childcare and “re-imagining bro space,” or game areas with ping-pong and pool tables, and then adding study spaces or adding yoga memberships. 

Among the most overlooked smaller challenges women face in the workplace when it comes to office design: air temperature. Dingjan also says employers should “get a grip” on air conditioning, the temperature for which is usually set to a man’s body size

Research has shown that women prefer an office temperature set at 75 degrees, compared to 70 degrees for men. Some workspace providers, such as the UK-based Office Group, have seen more demand for temperature-controlled areas in office spaces. 

 Inclusive office design can be as simple as ensuring air temperature works for both men and women. Pressmaster, Adobe Stock.

Women Want Flexibility and Equal Pay

But it goes beyond the physical office. Empowering women in the workplace requires a focus on culture and benefits, too: equal pay, fair promotion, family-friendly policies, and flexibility, considering the care of children and elderly family members tends to fall on women.

Flexibility is especially important to younger women. Three-quarters of women under 30 count flexibility as more important to them, according to a 2022 McKinsey survey, and 68% said their company’s commitment to well-being mattered more than ever before.  

Where women work isn’t as important as when they work, according to Deloitte’s 2023 Women @ Work survey. Lack of flexibility around working hours is one of the top three reasons women left their job in 2023. 

Flexibility for women at work is not just about where you work but when. Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock.

Cut the Culture of Sexism

Another obvious one of the challenges women face in the workplace: a culture of sexism. Some of it happens without people even recognizing it.

Diana Chapman, co-founder of the Conscious Leadership Group, has coached men who don’t always recognize how their comments were sexist or demeaning to a woman and how they don’t create inclusive workplaces. To create more gender equality in the workplace, it will be important that men identify such oversights. 

“There must be more of a mindset and cultural shift,” Chapman says. “Whoever has the power or whoever has had the power has even more responsibility.”

Sargent points to the speech given by America Ferrera’s character in the recent Barbie movie, which underscores the double-standard of being a woman and how she felt for decades at work. “That speech honestly hit me harder than any other speech in any movie, because it is so true and it was my experience in the workplace,” says Sargent.

When women don’t feel supported and included in a company’s culture, they’re three times more likely to quit if they don’t feel it, according to a survey by Bain & Company. Another survey by McKinsey echoed this concern, reporting that sexism and microaggressions to women at work have a large and lasting impact on women

Embrace Feminine Leadership

People like Brene Brown and others have led to the rise of empathetic and vulnerability in leadership, and ideally, women should benefit, because many of the most desirable attributes for modern leaders come more naturally for women than men. 

Women are realizing they don’t have to behave like a man to be successful. Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock.

In fact, one study found that eight out of 10 of the top competencies for modern leaders were feminine traits, such as expressive, reasonable, loyal, flexible, intuitive and patient.  

“Women are discovering that they don’t necessarily have to behave like a man to be successful,” says Chapman. Emotional intelligence, relationship leading and less hierarchy are “gifts of feminine leadership.” 

Over the past decade the number of women in C-suite jobs grew by 11% to 28% and they make up 33% of directors serving on the boards of S&P 500 companies. Additionally, representation of women across VP and SVP roles has also increased in recent years. The McKinsey Women in the Workplace report, showed that the broken rung on the ladder continues to be the biggest challenge for women climbing into senior leadership: 87 women and 73 women of color are promoted for every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager. 

“We’re seeing some progress, but there’s still a lot more work to be done,” says Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder of Chief, an organization that focuses on how to support women in the workplace, most specifically women at the most senior stage of their careers through learning and community.  

Kaplan and cofounder Carolyn Childers started Chief in 2019, after discovering not only that it’s lonely at the top, but even lonelier as a woman at the top. They needed peer support and mentorship.

Five years after its launch, Chief is now the largest community of senior executive women in the US, representing 77% of the Fortune 100 companies. Over 40% of Chief members are C-suite executives. The community offers executive coaching, monthly roundtables, workshop series, one-day summits and peer advisory groups.

The future looks optimistic. Women are more ambitious than ever, and younger women are discovering the power of speaking up. Roughly 80% of women want to be promoted to the next level, compared with 70% in 2019, according to a 2023 McKinsey Women in the Workplace report. Plus, millennial and Gen Z women, compared to older generations, are more likely to speak up and demand pay raises at work

Says Ira Wolfe, a longtime HR consultant, author, and speaker on the future of work: “Gen Z doesn’t know anything different. They recognize they have the power.”