How Organisation Leaders Can Help Women Succeed at Work – #IWD2020

Melissa Garrett Market Insights, International Women's Day

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you might have noticed that female empowerment has been a huge theme this past year. From the prominence of the #MeToo movement, to a record number of female leaders emerging in politics, to tough discussions about sexism and gender representation at board levels, it’s been a banner year for women. However, despite this progress, many women around the world still face significant challenges in the workplace.

Over the past five years, we have seen signs of progress in the representation of women at C-suite level, and although this is a step in the right direction, parity remains out of reach. Still, women continue to be underrepresented at every level. To change the numbers, companies need to focus where the real problem is.

We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager. Fixing this “broken rung” is the key to achieving parity.

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on the progress we’ve made, and time to act on change that can move towards gender equality.

So how did International Women’s Day start?

The idea to make an international women’s day came from a woman called Clara Zetkin (Leader of the 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party in Germany), off the back of a labour movement protest that occurred in New York in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. In 1910 at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Clara proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day - a Women's Day. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, agreed unanimously on her suggestion to establish a worldwide day of celebration to press for working women’s demands.

The very first IWD was held way back in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. In 1975, the United Nations officially made March 8 the date of International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

The current state of women in the workplace

In a recent study by McKinsey & Company, “Women in the Workplace 2019”, it reported 44 percent of companies now have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29 percent of companies in 2015. There are signs ‘the glass ceiling is cracking’ with about 1 in 5 C-suite executives now being a woman, however the overall representation of women in the C-suite is still far from parity.

The report has also highlighted a “broken rung”, which is preventing women from reaching the top. McKinsey & Company stating, “The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager”.

Well before the glass ceiling, women run into obstacles to advancement.

Currently women are outnumbered almost 2 to 1 by men in first-level manager jobs that are the bridges to senior roles. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and thus fewer women becoming managers. The flow on effect from this is that the number of women then continues to decrease at every subsequent level.

This research has revealed that companies are focusing on the wrong area in the talent pipeline, and that this early inequality can and will have a long-term impact.

How senior leaders and organisation leaders can help

Though women and men enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers, men outnumber women nearly 2 to 1 when they reach that first step up—the manager jobs that are the bridge to more senior leadership roles.

“Companies have the tools to [fix the broken rung]. We know this because they are using them to crack the ‘glass ceiling,’ by increasing the percentage of women at the very top. Now it is time to extend those practices to the rest of the organization.” Kevin Sneader and Lareina Yee, McKinsey & Company.

Here are some ideas to help senior leaders to help women succeed at work

  • Check your bias. As humans, we all have biases, unconscious and conscious, but what’s most important is that we’re aware we have them. Biases are prevalent in everyone, spanning everything from gender and race to appearance and wealth. But these biases can start to negatively affect our work relationships when we’re not aware of them. The Women in the Workplace study also found that women often think their gender makes it harder to advance. And that women negotiate raises and promotions as often as men do, but don’t always get the same outcomes as men.
  • Cultivate a culture of respect. Certain elements of company culture ca affect women’s achievements. Leaders should always remember to implement inclusion initiatives that involve diverse employees with key activities and decisions. Create an environment where everyone truly feels they belong. By supporting healthy relationships between managers and peers, leaders can ensure that all individuals have an opportunity to grow and learn, thus creating a culture of respect and providing an environment where women will feel they can thrive.
  • Sponsors and mentors. Sponsorships play a critical role in helping women advance in their careers. Mentors are professional or personal connections who serve as role models and offer advice. Sponsors not only support a worker but advocate for them professionally. Research shows that sponsorship accelerates career advancement, and employees with sponsors or mentors are far more likely to say they have opportunities to grow and advance.
  • Commit to salary equality. The gender pay gap is a high-priority issue that’s received significant attention in the past few years. You can make a difference at your own company by enforcing best practices around compensation, such as conducting a pay-gap analysis or finding ways to equalise performance reviews. Another tactic to consider is introducing salary transparency. While this is a tricky initiative to navigate and isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all answer, it can be a big step forward in terms of advocating for equality. Regardless of what you choose, the first step forward is opening up the conversation.
  • Encourage equal leadership and board representation. It’s a natural human tendency to be drawn to people who are similar to ourselves. That’s why – without an intentional shakeup – it’s easy for leadership boards to continue being filled with white men. If you want to lift women up, fight the subconscious bias to stick with what’s familiar and create goals around having more equally represented leadership boards. There are actual benefits to having a wider range of representation, such as diversity in thought and improved decision making – not to mention it’s also good for business.


This year's International Women's Day campaign has chosen the theme #EachForEqual, which is drawn from the idea of collective individualism.

"We are all parts of a whole," the campaign states. "Our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mindsets can have an impact on our larger society.

"Collectively, we can make change happen. Collectively, we can each help to create a gender equal world."

The road to gender parity is a long one. However, we should be proud of the progress we’ve made so far and should always think of ways that we – as both companies and individuals – can take initiative to further the cause.