Work & Wellbeing

Tackling the gender gap? Start by closing the perception gap

By Elisa Mallis | Managing director and vice president of Asia Pacific

March 8, 2022 | 7 min read

Uncovering the perception gap is critical, but it is only the first step. To break the glass ceiling, Elisa Mallis of the Center for Creative Leadership says we also need to take action to address the many challenges that women face, which often manifest in ’push’ and ’pull’ factors.

Consumers, employees and investors today are all demanding more from brands. Businesses are expected to be inclusive and socially responsible, with a strong sense of purpose serving as the organizational moral compass. Equity, diversity and inclusion have been increasingly in the spotlight, including in the area of gender parity.

As we once again celebrate International Women’s Day and pause to take a hard look at our progress and where we are today, the overall reality in 2022 remains underwhelming. In 2021, women held just 19.7% of the board seats globally – a number that falls further to 11.7% in Asia. The fallout from the pandemic also continues to disproportionately impact women. In 2020, there was $800bn in lost income for women around the world according to Oxfam.

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Working with diverse team members can help prompt people to question their assumptions and their biases

Many women who dropped out of school or lost their jobs won’t go back. LinkedIn just released a digital skills report where it also found that the gender gap has been widening since 2015 when it comes to digital inclusion. Last, but certainly not least, the latest World Economic Forecast tells us it could take another 165 years to attain gender parity in Asia.

So, what are businesses getting wrong? What does it take to truly #breakthebias?

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Uncovering the perception gap

For starters, we need to uncover our biases; and the first step is to recognize how perception gaps have persisted, and in some cases even widened, over the years. Our 2020 research study Overcoming Barriers to Women’s Leadership showed clear gaps in the way men and women in Asia perceive the barriers to women’s leadership. Among our survey responses, only 44% of men agreed that there is a pay gap in most workplaces, compared to 72% of women – a 28% gap.

The actual data on the wage gap is clear: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported an average of 11.6% pay gap, with Asian countries like Korea and Japan reporting the widest disparities.

In our study, this perception gap showed up consistently across a wide range of categories, from the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment to whether male managers are less likely to promote women than men. Women often face very real challenges in the workplace, but when these experiences go unacknowledged or are swept under the carpet this contributes to the systemic challenges and sense of powerlessness that many experiences.

Why breaking the illusion of equality is a team effort

Despite good intentions, it’s often difficult to understand the everyday challenges that those of underrepresented or marginalized social groups face.

There are certain structural changes that organizations need to make to bridge the perception gap. Working with diverse team members can help prompt people to question their assumptions and their biases. Having strong role models to look up to, along with concerted, organizational efforts to support, develop and promote women, also goes a long way in opening minds and shifting perceptions.

All of this points to the need to build an inclusive environment where team members are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, re-evaluate their viewpoints and engage with co-workers of different backgrounds.

The role of a manager cannot be understated. Corporate policies and diversity agendas often fail to translate into tangible actions toward gender parity because organizations neglected to engage leaders across all levels.

Especially in the virtual and hybrid work environment, managers are the main connection with the employee, the glue, and are best positioned to create a sense of belonging and inclusion. One of the most impactful things managers can do to lift female leaders is to question their perceptions: Are female leaders across levels getting the support they need to succeed? Are we doing what’s needed to tap the full potential of our female talent?

The answer to all these questions may be ’yes’ in some organizations or departments. The fact that the gender gap is widening suggests that in many if we are really honest, the answer is ’no’.

Lifting women is also about elevating your brand

Uncovering the perception gap is critical, but it is only the first step. To break the glass ceiling, we also need to take action to address the many challenges that women face, which often manifest in ’push’ and ’pull’ factors.

Pull factors are internally driven – limitations that women place on themselves; the inner voice that says, ’I can’t do it’. Push factors, on the other hand, are externally driven, arising from systemic obstacles like gender role expectations and family responsibilities. Intertwining in complex but subtle ways, the push and pull factors shape the context in which women live every day.

How we tackle these push and pull factors may be different in each organization, but what’s certain is that brands must fast-track efforts to remove the barriers. Tangible actions related to processes that will remove gender bias from recruitment, retention and career advancement are some of the heavy liftings that are a key part of eliminating some of the push factors.

When businesses fully see, appreciate and engage all their talent, they gain new insights and perspectives that would otherwise be missed. Brands that get diversity right are not only more attractive to consumers, but also are more likely to be more innovative, resilient, and achieve better business performance.

Elisa Mallis is the managing director and vice-president of Asia Pacific at Center for Creative Leadership.

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