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What will it take to achieve gender and racial equality in the workplace?

To achieve true gender and racial equality in the workplace, we must first understand what's holding us back. Let's get started!
Published 8 Mar 2021
11 min read
What will it take to achieve gender and racial equality in the workplace?

Following the events of 2020, there’s no better time to examine the next steps for businesses to achieve racial and gender equality in the workplace. Two of the largest racial and gender-motivated movements, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #metoo have brought these issues forward over the last couple of years.

Although these movements represent powerful punctuations of these issues, they follow a long line of effort, resistance and frustration towards a slow struggle for equality.

In a general sense, it may feel like a lot of progress towards diversity and inclusion has been made in a generation. However, if we dig a little deeper, we can see that a lot of the same issues that we faced a couple of decades ago still have a strong hold on society today.

They may be packaged differently or further hidden from view, but these issues remain.

Throughout our diversity and inclusion series, we’ve explored how workplaces of all sizes make a difference. With the average person spending 90,000 hours (or a third of their lives) at work, the culture of a workplace can have a huge impact on employees that they then carry into the other areas of their world.

Remember that inequalities can be reinforced or challenged in the workplace, and what happens in offices and within teams has power. The business value of having a diverse workforce is overwhelming. According to McKinsey:

  • companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation
  • Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability
  • Companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability

The differences diversity and inclusion can make to a company’s innovation, growth and creative thinking are as clear as day. So why aren’t we there yet? What will it take to achieve racial and gender equality in 2021?

Gender equality at work

What better place to start than with a fun pop ditty about the disaster which is the gender pay gap?

Hannah and Eliza Riley suggest that as Australian women are on average paid only 84% of what Australian men are paid, they’re only being paid until 3.43 pm. If you applied the wage gap to a week, you’d work for free every Friday, if applied to the year, you’d work for free after November 3.

The pay gap is wider in higher-earning industries and roles, with female surgeons, lawyers and corporate workers earning significantly less than their male counterparts. This pay gap widens when the workforce is broken down by race and ethnicity.

According to LeanIn, US women are paid on average 20% less than men, Black women are paid 38% less and Latina women are paid 47% less. So why are women paid so much less? It comes down to a few factors.

A common misconception around the gender pay gap is that women aren’t pursuing opportunities at the same rate as men – ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’.

LeanIn’s Equal Pay Report found that women ask for promotions just as often as men, yet for every 100 entry-level men promoted to manager-level roles, only 72 women are promoted.

With so fewer women experiencing career development, women stay in junior roles while men move further up the company.

In a sequence of recurring bias, men in senior positions promote other men to senior positions. Another big reason for the pay gap? When women become parents, their earning potential is seriously impacted – something that economists are calling a ‘wage penalty’ for motherhood.

Research from the OECD shows this penalty amounts to about a 7% salary reduction for each child. Even more infuriatingly, the opposite seems to be true for men, with every child a man has correlating with a rise in pay. *cue blood boiling*

McKinsey estimates that an additional $12 trillion in GDP would be generated if the gender pay gap is narrowed by 2025.

Sadly, the World Economic Forum predicts it will take 201 years before we get there. The pay gap is not the only inequality women are facing in the 2021 workplace. The numbers around discrimination at work are still staggering.

73% of women reported to LeanIn that they experienced day-to-day inequities, discrimination and bias at work. Almost a quarter of women in the UK aged between 16 and 30 have been sexually harassed at work.

What can we do about it?

Decision makers, and owners of businesses of any size have the power to make a better world at work for women.

Here’s what you can do to work towards gender equality in the workplace.

Run a salary audit

According to WEGA, only 46.4% of organisations analysed their pay data for gaps, and only 54.4% of organisations took action to close the identified gaps.

βš–οΈ Australian organisations are required by law to provide equal pay to employees who are performing work of equal or comparable value. So businesses are not just morally obliged to do the work here, they’re legally obliged to.

Check the laws in your country. To run an audit, sit down and note each staff member’s salary on each level of the company. Draw a map if that helps you visualise the levels of the company, or write a detailed list.

First, compare the salaries of staff members who do the same job. Do you have a male and a female who are both Marketing Coordinators, but the male is making more in the role?

Secondly, look across the company at people on similar levels but in different roles and departments, how do the salaries compare from women to men on this larger scale?

For assistance with this process, download the WEGA pay gap calculator. Once you’ve identified these pay gaps, take a look at all of your staff notes. Look at how your staff are positioned generally.

Are there significantly more men in senior positions than women?

Create development pathways for women

We know that women are asking for promotions at the same rate as men, but why aren’t they moving into those positions as frequently? Again, tackling this one is a two-part process. First, talk to your senior teams about ways to make sure that development bias does not happen at your company.

Have an open discussion about how unconscious bias operates – we’re unintentionally programmed to feel an affinity towards people who are similar to ourselves.

How can we challenge this to make sure that we’re looking beyond surface level to identify great talent worth investing in? Secondly, encourage women in your company to pursue leadership positions.

Check in with your staff to find out what their professional goals are and implement measures to help them get there. Do they want some advice from a senior staff member on how they could progress? Would they like to up-skill in a certain area to help them reach the next level?

Ask the women on your team what their next steps are, and avoid making assumptions based on their age, marital or parental status.

Offer paternity leave and encourage fathers to take it

There are some powerful arguments to be made that until the world doesn’t deem infant care as a primarily female responsibility, the gender pay gap will exist.

Iceland is a great case study for how equal parental leave can be beneficial, not just for the working life of women, but also for the personal lives of fathers. Icelandic parents are given a total of 10 months combined leave.

Of this, each parent is given 3 months each which are non-transferable to the other parent. The remainder of the leave can be split as the parents wish. Implementing this policy has not only helped narrow the gender pay gap, but it has also helped Icelandic fathers build greater active caregiving relationships with their children.

Sadly, it is not always sustainable for small businesses to be providing this length of paid parental leave without government support. While you may not be able to offer three months of leave for fathers and partners, it’s worth supporting this leave where you can.

πŸ’‘ Currently, the Australian Government offers 18 weeks parental leave pay for a primary caregiver, and 2 weeks ‘Dad and Partner Leave Pay‘ for another carer. The parental leave payment is made through a person’s employer.

Whether your workplace has a policy of an extra week of paid leave in addition to the two weeks offered by the Government, or an increased working flexibility for working fathers and partners, anyway that you can encourage all parents to take parental leave will help.

Create a no-tolerance policy for gender discrimination and harassment

No workplaces intentionally set out to condone gender discrimination or harassment, yet it remains to be a huge problem. As this can be such a sensitive issue, cases of discrimination and harassment often go unreported or are swept under the rug.

A no-tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment should outline the business’ approach to this issue.

By creating a policy that explicitly states that management will not tolerate any kind of discrimination and harassment, you send a clear message to all staff; those displaying discriminatory behaviour will face penalties and those experiencing discriminatory behaviour have a clear course of complaint – and they will be taken very seriously by management.

πŸ’‘New to putting together anti-discrimination policies? Our people and talent expert Alex Hattingh can help with this straightforward guide.Β 

Racial equality at work

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement galvanised the dialogue around race around the world. Despite the movement being active since 2013, the murder of George Floyd by police in May of 2020 triggered a surge in dialogue. It’s clear that the global community wants to see real, society-wide commitment to racial equality.

It’s important that the workplace is not left out of these conversations.

During a year when there was so much public discourse about race, many workplaces still fell short in supporting their employees. 47% of African American job seekers and employees have quit a job after witnessing or experiencing discrimination at work. People of colour are still dramatically underrepresented in leadership positions.

Many professionals are reluctant to have honest conversations about racism in the workplace.

Government Advisor Jemi Jeng writes; β€œFor some white people the reluctance may come from a fear of saying the wrong thing. They don’t want to offend or be perceived as insensitive or racist. Some may feel uncomfortable, helpless or out of place talking about racism…  For people of colour, the reluctance can come from a fear of reprisal. We’re afraid of what speaking up will mean for our jobs and careers. We don’t want to be singled out or alienated, and are tired of the silence and misguided excuses when we speak up. This includes suggestions that we’ve ‘misunderstood’, ‘are overreacting’, ‘can’t take a joke’, are ‘too PC’, ‘playing the race card’.”

The more that we shy away from conversations in the workplace, the more that discrimination and microaggressions are likely to go unchecked. A microaggression is a statement, action or comment which is indirectly, subtly or unintentionally discriminatory.

These microaggressions become a part of everyday racism, contributing to an exhausting daily experience.

This nature of everyday racism goes against a perceived notion of allyship. According to a study from LeanIn, over 80% of white employees say that they see themselves as allies to colleagues of other races and ethnicities, yet only 25% say that they have actually spoken out against racial discrimination at work.

Similar to gender inequality, racial inequality sees insidious bias and tokenism influence progress in businesses.

Tokenism is the process of employing someone of a certain background or identity ‘just for show’ – to be seen as doing the right thing without making an effort to be properly inclusive. When an employee is hired for tokenistic reasons, the employer is not recognising an employees true value and will likely not embrace what they can bring to the company.

The tokenistic employer might also reduce efforts to hire more people from a range of racial or ethnic backgrounds after employing their ‘token’ employee, as they might think they have achieved representation.

Tokenism can often lead to a sense of ‘onlyness’ – when an employee is the only one of their identity in a particular space – like being the only person of colour in a room of white employees.

A LeanIn Study found that ‘onlys’ are three times as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior, and twice as likely to be subjected to demeaning remarks. They also often feel a larger sense of pressure to perform.

What can we do about it?

Interrogate hiring bias

Hiring bias would see you preference a certain type of person over another during the recruitment process. It can lead to a lack of gender and cultural diversity in your workforce, and can remove equal opportunities.

πŸ’‘ Want to learn more about Australia’s Equal Employment Opportunity laws? Read through our helpful guide.Β 

Unconscious bias and similarity bias can be a real barrier to a racially diverse workforce. Unconscious bias can see a hiring manager believe they are making objective decisions without realising they are being influenced by societal stereotypes. Affinity bias is another unconscious tendency, where hiring managers preference people who they are similar to.

A 2015 study found that applicants with white-sounding names are more likely to have success than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs. Have an open discussion about challenging bias with your hiring teams and if in doubt, crunch the numbers!

How many people from racially-diverse backgrounds are applying for your roles and how many are making it through the recruitment process? You may decide to set a quota or a target for either of these numbers.

πŸ’‘ Here are 8 ways that you can combat bias in the hiring process.Β 

Create a culture of allyship

In the workplace, allies can be leaders, managers or employees who acknowledge, respect and value differences. Being an effective and authentic ally means more than one single act of solidarity (it doesn’t begin and end with a black square on Instagram).

It means taking the long road to understanding and empathising with the various inequalities minority groups experience.

Displaying allyship can include standing up against discriminatory behaviour when you see it, challenging microaggressions, and explaining sensitive topics to non-diverse colleagues so the diverse individual doesn’t have to. The burden on individuals from minority groups to talk to their identity time and time again can be exhausting.

Being an ally also includes taking the time to become a trusted confidante by actively listening to people from minority groups about their experiences.

Allies should be a trusted ear, and never view a person’s complaint of discrimination as a personal attack. They should also use their voice to amplify others that might get lost in company communications – but they should be aware of speaking up, not over.

While it’s important to help amplify underrepresented voices, it’s equally as important to provide an opportunity for those voices to share their own experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Make a statement (and a commitment)

We’ve already mentioned the ‘black square’ – where individuals and companies alike showed their commitment to the BLM cause by posting a black square on ‘Black Out Tuesday’, June 2, 2020.

While there’s nothing explicitly wrong with posting a black square on Instagram in support, this becomes an issue when the company or individual does nothing else to show a commitment to anti-racism.

In many ways, posting a black square was a show of ‘virtue signalling’ – the action of publicly expressing opinions that are intended to demonstrate good character towards a particular issue, without taking any action to challenge or make progress on that issue.

Many companies have been called out for posting a black square whilst people of colour who worked for them continued to face discrimination.

βœ… Netflix showed an authentic commitment to racial equality after George Floyd’s death.

They publicly denounced racism before making a significant donation to historically Black universities and highlighting work by Black creators within their platform.

βœ… A great example of a brand who didn’t yet know what to say but gave a very appropriate response.

❌ On Black Out Tuesday fashion brand Zimmermann shared a black square with an anti-racism quote from Desmond Tutu. The brand was quickly called out for their internal discriminatory culture, with their ‘Grooming and Presentation Standards’ for staff making it impossible for black women to work for the brand while wearing their hair naturally.

A range of statements followed, with former brand interns speaking to a racist internal culture. Did your business post a black square on Black Out Tuesday? If you did or if you didn’t, it’s worth considering the impact of making a public commitment to racial diversity.

Research is increasingly showing that a brand’s sense of social consciousness is important to consumers, especially millennial and Gen Z customers. These digitally savvy generations are also more aware of empty statements and are ready to call them out.

Consider backing up your commitment to racial equality by sharing some action points of how you will support the cause. That might include sharing the details of internal diversity action plans, making a donation to a local charity that supports racial equality or promoting businesses or services owned by people of colour.

Most importantly, follow up! Show that this is a long-term commitment. Β  We want to help you build a robust diversity and inclusion strategy in 2021.

Download our complete Diversity and Inclusion HR Handbook now.

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Diversity and inclusion handbook

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