Gender Equality in the Workplace: How the UN is working to make a difference


As we strive for a more democratic society, gender equality becomes a more important goal. Women must have the same opportunities as men to achieve their potential, become leaders or entrepreneurs, and to be rewarded based on their achievements.

Yet there is ample evidence that we have not yet achieved this goal. Gender inequality is found in every level of society, including in business. For example, the number of female organizational leaders in the United States lag sharply behind men, with only 7% of the Fortune 1000 companies run by female CEOs. Women aspiring to top business positions hit the “glass ceiling,” and those who crash through the ceiling are often faced with the “glass cliff,” where they achieve top leadership positions only during times of crisis, when the chances of failure are often highest.

While there are many reasons for the lack of gender equality, one is the mistaken belief that there are biological differences in cognition. Yet psychologists have been studying the differences between men and women for years and have concluded that there are no cognitive differences between men and women at all. The differences that appear are due to biases in the measurement procedures, the environments in which the measurement is being made, and their differing preparation and expectations. For example, a landmark study in the 1990s by the University of Wisconsin Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde compiled and synthesized studies of math performance of more than three million students and found no large overall difference between boys and girls. Girls were slightly better at problem solving in elementary and middle school with boys becoming slightly ahead in high school because they took more science courses which emphasized that skill. Boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any slight gender differences narrowed over the years. There is therefore no evidence of a biological difference in ability to understand math. Psychologists have found that women tend to be slightly higher than men in verbal ability while men tend to have a slight edge in visual spatial skills. In other words, the differences are not large enough to impact business skills and should not impact the number of successful female business leaders in our society.

When psychologists study differences in leadership styles between men and women they find some interesting differences. A 2003 study showed that women were slightly more likely to have a transformational leadership style, in which managers act more like coaches and encourage creative solutions to problems. This style is better suited to our contemporary workplace. Men, who tend to be more transactional in relationships, were more likely to criticize subordinates, be less hands-on, and less rewarding of good performance than women. The psychologists believe this difference is not due to an innate style but is a result of experience. It is also important to point out that there are also many male leaders who adapt a transformational style and many female leaders who are transactional. The difference is likely due to upbringing and learning experiences.

Given the knowledge of the similarities between men and women and even the slight advantage women may have as leaders in our modern organizations, why should gender equality in the workplace still be elusive? In a series of studies, organizational psychologist Virginia Schein explored sex role stereotypes and found that “think manager-think male” was a strongly held belief among executives in the US. She found that this stereotype was a barrier to womens’ advancement into the higher ranks of business and government. The attitude about gender equality will not change until the behaviors around this issue change.

To achieve global gender equality the stereotype must be overcome. It can only happen through directives from the highest ranks of the organization including the CEO. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is taking some of the following steps to correct gender inequality issues within the United Nations:

a. Appointing a senior executive to help bring about gender equality by monitoring progress, as well as collecting and disseminating statistics and survey data on the experiences of women working in the UN.

b. Conducting regular reviews of women who have been at the same organizational level for a period of five years.

c. Reviewing hiring procedures to be sure that there are no discriminatory practices or demands that disadvantage women.

d. Instituting procedures to review the overall treatment of women and be a center for receiving suggestions and complaints from women about their treatment in the workplace.

e. Developing training sessions on gender sensitivity and unconscious bias

f. Developing policies on work, such as life balance and flexible work arrangements for all employees with special attention to the needs of women raising children.

g. Ending the ranking employees considered for promotions to compare candidate’s qualifications against job requirements as opposed to comparison against each other.

All organizations should consider these suggestions to better promote gender equality. Besides being the right thing to do, it’s also better for the bottom line; according to the World Economic Forum, companies that promote gender equality are 15% more profitable, and the Fortune 500 companies that have a high representation of women strongly outperform the others. Businesses can capitalize on this by investing in women; it’s the right thing to do, both financially and ethically.

Want to learn more? Join OrgVitality at the United Nations on April 25th for Psychology Day at the United Nations. Psychologist Virginia Schein will be among the panelists, along with Lillian Comas Diaz, Oliva Espin and Shelly Grabe. This year’s theme is on global gender equality. Registration is required.

Register Here

Walter Reichman, Ed.D, is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality. Dr. Reichman is also the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology and the president of the Psychology Coalition at the UN. In that capacity, he brings information about the UN to organizations around the world and psychological insights and research to the deliberations of the UN. For more information, email Dr. Reichman directly.

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