Harvard gender equity experts Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg analyze why the gender gap persists for women in management despite women’s significant advances in college education and the workforce in general—and what to do about it—in their new book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. In this wide-ranging Q&A, they share their thoughts on the effects of the pandemic and the #MeToo movement on women at work, what’s most important to shatter the glass ceiling and why gender inequality in the workplace is as much a concern for men as it is for women.
Why did you focus on this topic now?
We met in 2012 when Harvard Business School was commemorating the 50th anniversary of women’s admission to the MBA program. We started collaborating on various research projects and realized that we were amassing more material than could fit into an article or a case. At the same time, the school was deepening its commitment to gender equity which allowed us to launch new efforts like the Gender Initiative, the Women on Boards Executive Education program and an MBA course called How Star Women Succeed.
Equal opportunity in the workforce is clearly good for women. Why is it also good for men?
Rigid gender roles and expectations are limiting to men, too. Right now, work-life balance and conflict is framed as a “women’s problem,” but men are also working parents. Organizations make it hard for men to be involved parents just as they make it hard for women to stay in their careers. While men are advantaged at work, they are discouraged from caregiving, and they’re losing out on a full life. But even more broadly, workplaces that are good for women are good for everyone. We find that men perform better in organizations with more women—not because of the presence of women per se, but because these are healthy work environments where everyone can thrive and contribute.
What’s the most important thing required to shatter the glass ceiling in the workplace once and for all?
There’s no magic bullet. But there is a key combination of factors that we need, which we explain in our book. First, structure: we’ve got to address the ways that systematic disadvantages are baked into all our management processes. We’ve got to pair structural remedies with fostering cultures that support those changes—you can set great standards in a process like, say, hiring, but if people don’t embrace them (or if they undermine them), well, you’re back to square one. And the final piece is leadership. Managers at every level must be invested in and feel accountable for advancing equity, and that goes double for CEOs and others whose example and actions have outsize influence.
Women have suffered job losses disproportionately during the pandemic with nearly 2.1 million women leaving the workforce in 2020, including 564,000 Black women and 317,000 Latinas. What can be done to ensure that the hard-earned gains women have made are not permanently erased?
We became concerned about the impacts of the pandemic on women’s careers very early on. We started hearing from women, even at the senior executive level, who were dismayed and disappointed at how their employers were handling the transition to remote work. These stories spurred us to write a short article about how companies could prevent women exiting or becoming disengaged. A year later, it seems clear that organizations have either won renewed loyalty from women employees for how humanely they have handled the crisis or, on the other hand, shown that they aren’t willing to invest in their female workers. When the job market improves, a lot of women will be voting with their feet.
The #MeToo movement has shed light on unacceptable behavior that used to be ignored sometimes. Are there new challenges it has raised for women’s success in the workplace?
Companies can’t shirk responsibility for the environment they foster. There’s been a collective recognition that sexual harassment isn’t a problem of individual bad actors but of organizational cultures that normalize, excuse and minimize misconduct. While there is some speculation about men withdrawing from their female colleagues post #MeToo, it’s not clear that’s happened systemically or broadly. But what is clear is that companies are putting more resources into addressing and preventing harassment, which benefits everyone.
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