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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. March 15, 2021

Gender Parity in the Workplace: What Is It & What Can We Do About It?

The measure of representation

Photograph shows suffrage and labor activist Flora Dodge "Fola" La Follette (1882-1970), social reformer and missionary Rose Livingston, and a young striker during a garment strike in New York City in 1913.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

This article is part of InHerSight's Gender Pay Gap series. Women are paid less than men, but the gender pay gap is much more complicated than a paycheck. Dive into the history, data, and intersectionality of gender inequality’s open secret.

Gender parity in the workplace isn’t even close to 1:1, especially when it comes to women in senior management, the C-suite, and sitting on corporate boards. This flies not only in the face of social pressure and opinion but also good business practices. And while some slow progress has been made over the past few years, company and government leadership need to step up to make that progress meaningful.

Read more: Are You 'The Only' at Work? Here's How to Broaden Your Network

Is gender parity the same thing as gender equality?

No. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, gender equality refers to how people of different genders are treated. Gender parity, on the other hand, is a measure of representation. You reach parity when each gender is represented equally.

While that seems simple, it can get complicated fast, says Dr. Janvi Patel, equal rights advocate and advisory board member for Equality Now. 

“Gender parity is a pretty basic indicator,” she says. “It’s essentially the ratio of men to women, and the closer that number is to one, the better the parity. It would be great to see gender parity (1:1 ratio) in the boardroom, but to shift gender parity, there has to be deeper thinking about gender equality, which takes into account the differences between the sexes, not just the binary genders but also the nonbinary; corporations need to understand the needs of each gender.”

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

Are we getting close to gender parity in the workplace?

Bad news, unfortunately, 2020 Super Lawyer Sara Wyn Kane tells us. “Without substantial efforts undertaken now, it is highly likely that our children and our children’s children will not live to see equality in employment.” 

“The statistics are still gloomy in that globally, gender parity in employment stands at 68.6 percent and has remained generally stagnant for decades,” she says. “In corporate boardrooms, it is even worse, with France achieving the greatest gender parity at 43.4 percent, as opposed to Korea with an appalling rate of 2.1 percent. The United States is a paltry 21.7 percent.”

The situation is even worse for Black women, reports Chauncey Alcorn at CNN, and unless purposeful action is taken now, it won’t be getting better any time soon. That’s because “experts say there currently aren't enough Black women in the C-suite pipeline at most major companies to narrow the gap between Black and white women, who are also underrepresented in executive leadership,” Alcorn writes.

Read more: Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

But isn’t gender parity good for business?

Yes, yes it is.

“There is a significant research base demonstrating a strong correlation between diversity at a leadership level and business results,” says Kim Schmidt in Grant Thornton International’s report on women in business.

“In today’s complex, volatile environment, organizations need to be responsive and innovative,” she explains. “And we know there is a direct link between innovation and diversity. Lasting diversity can only be achieved by committed action to promote women, through sponsorship and support, by creating opportunities, removing biases, and shaping an inclusive culture.”

So it makes good business sense to actively move toward gender parity in the workplace.

And there are some great examples of organizations doing just that. CBC/Radio Canada, for example, was recognized in October 2020 for gender parity, with women representing 48 percent of its workforce. Florence Ngué-No, the corporation’s senior specialist in media relations, strategy, and public affairs, says its Board of Directors is currently made up of seven women and five men. 

This commitment to gender parity at CBC really is coming from the top: Board directors are appointed by the federal government.

Read more: Regina King Following Through on Her Gender Parity Promise

There are good examples on this side of the border too. Parity.org has named Adobe, Best Buy, and PepsiCo among the best companies at which women can advance, saying “these companies have built a foundation to reduce obstacles to women's advancement and promote a work environment where women are valued and can succeed.” 

To be more specific, Adobe with its more than 22,000 employees across the globe improved its gender mix by 1 percent including in leadership roles. As of 2020, the company reports one-third of its employees are female, with 26 percent in leadership positions of director-level or above, 29 percent in people management, and 26 percent in technical roles. Nearly 40 percent of new hires last year were women.

Read more: Gender-Dominated Field? Don’t Worry—Everyone Gets a Pay Gap

So how do we make those substantial efforts needed to realize gender equity?

First, actively support or emulate companies with a solid record on gender equality. You can find these organizations through Equileap, a provider of data and insights on gender equality, in their yearly list of the world’s 100 most gender-equitable companies.

Next, realize that for real and meaningful change to exist, companies need to do all of it right, employment lawyer Ann-Marie Ahern says. They need to:

  • Be thoughtful about recruiting and promotion practices and implement systems to ensure the highest percentage of women candidacy.  

  • Be equally concerned about practices and policies that encourage retention of women talent, such as paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements.

  • Recognize that mentorship and sponsorship programs are effective in helping top talent learn from those who have successfully climbed the corporate ladder.

  • Have, wherever possible, a diverse group of decision-makers involved in promotions.

  • Consistently demonstrate an open and meaningful commitment to a culture of diversity through words and deeds.  

That commitment, explains Ahern, can be anything from adding board seats to accelerate the placement of women at a board level to intentionally filling open seats with women.

Read more: 15 New Women in Leadership to Celebrate in 2021

The lack of diversity in a board of directors, Kane says, is indicative of the “same paucity in upper and middle management. The failure to recognize and address gender diversity in one level of a company almost always affects the other layers. Without representation in the room, half of the population's voices are not truly being heard, recognized, and addressed. Without having a seat in the room, it is virtually impossible for the people in the room to recognize what is missing.”

Patel says she’s actually a strong believer in quotas. 

“Companies and societies rarely change their behavior because they have to,” she explains. “I firmly believe that if we require companies, at least those listed on NYSE or those who want government contracts, to have equality in their leadership, then companies would be required to focus on how to deal with the pipeline, how to deal with retention. Once we address the inequality, we might then get to gender parity.”

About our sources

Awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Law in the U.K., Dr. Janvi Patel, is also co-founder of the non-profit Support SEND Kids and FreePeriods and is an advisory board member at Equality Now and at Children of War Foundation, an investment committee member for venture capital fund for female founders ALIAVIA.

Previously Janvi, as Chairwoman and Cofounder of Halebury, spearheaded operational, structural, and cultural change within the legal services profession through a visionary and unique business model. In 2018 Halebury was acquired by Elevate and Janvi became the Vice President and Co-Head of Elevate’s global flexible legal resourcing solution, which provides experienced legal professionals to both Fortune 500 companies and global law firms. Janvi completed her exit from Elevate in early 2020 and is now focusing on nonprofit activities as well as working on a number of writing and media projects. A strong supporter and advocate for women’s rights at all levels, she is a regular speaker at industry and business forums, as well as for the next generation via organizations such as Speakers for Schools.

2020 Super Lawyer Sara Wyn Kane, partner at the law firm of Valli, Kane & Vagnini in Garden City, New York, has focused her practice on the negotiation, mediation, and litigation of individual as well as complex mass and class actions. She has been appointed lead or co-lead counsel in a variety of mass/class cases throughout the country, often working in tandem with some of the most well-respected plaintiffs’ discrimination and wage and hour firms in the nation.

Throughout her career, Kane has appeared on television to discuss employment discrimination claims generally and specifically regarding cases filed and litigated by the firm. She has lectured and appeared as a panelist on issues relating to employment, wages, and Civil Rights and most recently with respect to the #MeToo movement. Immediately upon hearing about the ability to offer guidance to women and men coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment, Kane signed up for and has been a member of the Legal Network for Gender Equity aka Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.

Employment lawyer Ann-Marie Ahern is a Principal and OSBA Certified Specialist in the area of Labor and Employment Law at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal and Liffman in Cleveland, Ohio. She focuses on employee agreements, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and discharge and counsels executives and management-level employees on sensitive career transition issues.

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Stephanie Olsen

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Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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