For the first time in the history of the Fortune 500, women are leading 10% of the United States’ largest companies by revenue.
The milestone is worth recognizing but can also serve as motivation to continue moving the dial when it comes to women’s representation in leadership positions.
The following research and actionable advice shared by MIT faculty and industry executives can help organizations recognize gender bias and clear a path for women to make the most of workplace opportunities.
Avoid “lazy language” when evaluating candidates
Have you ever heard a female candidate described as “not a good fit” or “too emotional” when your organization was looking to hire someone? That’s an example of lazy language, and it’s a micro-inequity that can work against women.
“It’s really vague and it’s really nonspecific, but people say it … as though it’s a truth and fact,” said Lori Marcus, one of six members of The Band of Sisters, a group of PepsiCo alumnae and co-authors of the book “You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace.”
During an MIT Sloan panel discussion about allyship, Marcus said there are three things to remember in these instances: situation, behavior, and impact.
If someone refers to a woman as being too emotional, have them explain the situation that prompted that perception. Then ask the person to describe the specific behavior they witnessed. As the person describes what happened, they’ll either realize that the woman’s response wasn’t inappropriate or that the impact of the perceived behavior should in fact be addressed.
To attract more women, do more than just tweak job-posting language
Past research has encouraged companies to remove gendered words like “committed” (feminine) or “determined” (masculine) in favor of neutral words in online job descriptions — a practice designed to attract a more gender-diverse pool of job applicants.
“Our findings reveal that both the language used when posting jobs and the gender of the recruiters have no effects that matter in practice on how women and men behave during recruitment,” Castilla and Rho write. “We caution that the practice of simply altering the language of job descriptions may not necessarily help organizations address diversity issues.”
The researchers advise hiring managers to instead pay attention to the information that’s already out there about their organization or about the open job. If the perception of an organization is favorable but the gender diversity of applicants is still imbalanced, recruiters and hiring managers might want to consider trying to identify untapped talent pipelines, such as women’s colleges or professional women’s groups or associations.
Follow the lead of women who have overcome barriers in their industries
What should have been a celebration for Carla Silvado when she joined Salesforce in 2019 ended up serving as an excuse for self-inflicted negative thoughts.
“I am Brazilian, so moving to the U.S., joining a big corporation — Salesforce was my dream job. But I also had imposter syndrome weighing on me,” said Silvado, director of professional services at the software company. “I have an accent, and I don’t have a tech background.”
Silvado was one of several managers who joined an MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar to share their experiences of overcoming challenges with the help of allies and discuss what they’re doing to help those behind them.
Despite her insecurities, Silvado said, she eventually overcame them by reframing her differences not as negative features that she needed to change but rather as qualities that helped her stand out.
“I am Latina and a woman in tech, so not a lot of rooms have many people like me,” Silvado said. “I stopped seeing that as something that I needed to overcome and instead [saw] that this is the value that I bring to this table.”
Encourage employees to have a healthy relationship with power
When it comes to the gendered imbalance of power in organizations, it’s tempting to look at the people at the top and try to develop the same skills they have in the hope of replicating their ascent.
But MIT Sloan researchers andsuggest alternative avenues women can take to reach the next level of leadership in their careers, including the following:
- Draw energy from yourself and your organization. Think about the impact you want to have and why you’re the right person to lead that change effort. That way, you’re not just talking about yourself; you’re talking about the journey you want to take with your team and for your organization — all of which can be energizing and doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, Murray said.
- Amplify voices and let people do their best work. “It’s all about leaders needing to step up and be really clear about what’s expected of people, so that they can then step back and let those other people make decisions and do the work that they ought to be doing,” Johnson said.