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Gender Inequity and Respect: Now the Work Really Gets Difficult

This year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rakesh Kochhar from the Pew Research Center, a highly educated economist, who has studied demographic trends and popular opinion on a variety of issues. He made a presentation focused on gender pay inequity, the reasons why it exists, factors that have contributed to narrowing the gap, and also behaviors that make it unlikely the gap will disappear.

Dr. Kochhar made the point that we cannot rely only on demographic trends and educational enlightenment to eradicate gender discrimination in the workplace. To drive it, there needs to be steady, courageous, assertive action that counters the conscious and unconscious biases that surround this issue. It isn’t just about adopting a policy of pay parity, it’s about understanding the nuances in organizational practices, and the idiosyncrasies of personal human behavior that perpetuate inequity.

Ask yourself, does your organization tend to reward risk-taking behaviors (e.g., The Wolf of Wall Street), over rewarding ethical and values-based decision making (e.g., Enron whistle-blowers)? How discriminatory is your organization’s practices for assessing performance, promoting talent and identifying leadership successors? Do men and/or women meet informally in settings that tend to exclude gender representation, and if so is there a mechanism for making sure everyone on the team is looped in? Such things won’t get fixed by themselves; it will require intentional leadership and constructive action in every boardroom, office, hallway, retail floor, and manufacturing plant across America. That, my friends, is difficult work to be sure.

Another challenge we face in organizations, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is that “one in four women face harassment in the workplace, and many are loathe to report it.” Disrespect of women is not funny, it’s not rare, and it’s not marginal. Explaining it away, or justifying the behavior as “locker room talk” is insulting. It is mainstream, it is disturbing, and we need fresh ideas for addressing this issue. Here is where the challenge gets really difficult – men need to stop objectifying women and replace old habits with genuine respect for the accomplishments and contributions of women. No magic wand, all-employee meeting, refreshed policy, or new year’s resolution will fix this.

Men being positive voices for change is the critical first step toward progress, and resolute people of both genders need to take a stand. Without that commitment – and in spite of rhetoric and good intentions – these inequities in the workplace will persist until we embrace and push through the barriers attached to these challenging issues.

When recently interviewed about harassment in the workplace, CEO Satya Nadella of Microsoft replied, “The tone at the top matters; people in power is where the change has to happen.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke these words about space exploration:

“We choose to go to the moon, not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Men and women everywhere need that kind of resolve – an intentionality to stand against inequity and to stand for civility, respect, and accountability – regardless of gender, title, or level. We can make work safe and we can make it equitable. You need to do this; your credibility as an employer depends on it. This may be the most difficult work you will ever encounter, but do not be fooled; that is exactly why it is worth the effort.

Mark Englizian is the former CHRO of Walgreens and chair of i4cp’s Total Rewards Leader Board.

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