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Empowering women

Women's empowerment

Advancing gender equity: Insights from Claudia Goldin’s Nobel-Prize-winning work   

Published 1 March 2024 in Women's empowerment • 7 min read

It’s time to start finding solutions, instead of just flagging the problems. Four ways in which businesses can reframe the workplace environment more positively for women

Despite significant strides in recent decades, persistent disparities continue to impede the realization of gender equity. To navigate this complex domain, we can shed light on pathways for meaningful change from Claudia Goldin’s Nobel-prize winning research.

Goldin – the third woman and the only solo woman – to win the Nobel prize in economics in October 2023 has examined the intersection of social norms, labourforce dynamics and policy interventoins in shaping gender outcomes.

Sadly there is still much work to do to reach parity as Deloitte’s 2023 Women @ Work study shows that businesses continue to put women at a disadvantage in the workplace, with 44% of women reporting that they have experienced harassment and/or microaggressions at work over the past year.   

The survey also highlighted struggles around flexible working, with 97% of women saying that requesting such an arrangement would adversely affect their chances of promotion, while 37% of women with a partner say they feel they need to prioritize their partner’s career over their own. 

Yet Goldin’s work highlights the positive impact of family-friendly policies such as parental leave and flexible work arrangements on advancing gender equity in the workforce. Her research also focuses on the persistence of the gender wage gap and the need for comprehensive approaches to address it.

When discussing workplace inequality, leaders all too often focus on the problems without offering any solutions. For workplaces to become environments in which women can thrive, organizations must create inclusive cultures that foster collaboration and consideration, rather than environments that disadvantage women. 

So, how can businesses reframe the workplace environment positively for women? 

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Two-thirds of mothers felt that they had missed out on career progression as a result of having children .

1. Equal benefits: combat ‘greedy work’ by introducing flexibility

In her book “Career and Family: Women’s Century Long Journey to Equity”, Goldin coined the phrase “greedy work” to describe work that values and rewards jobs with long and inflexible hours with high salaries. Such jobs involve a degree of presenteeism that can prove incompatible with flexible working, effectively excluding women with caretaking responsibilities. 

Moreover, greedy jobs incentivize couples with children to prioritize the career of one partner. The result of this is often that one partner (usually the male in a heterosexual couple) stays in this “greedy work” full time, while the other partner (most often the female) takes flexible work and makes other concessions to accommodate care-giving responsibilities. This, in turn, can lead to fewer prospects for promotion for the female partner. A survey from the British Chamber of Commerce found that two-thirds of mothers felt that they had missed out on career progression as a result of having children, compared with just over one-third of fathers. 

Businesses should not expect their female employees to shoulder the burden of fixing this problem. By adopting policies that are pro family – such as paid family leave and support with child-care – businesses can create more equitable conditions for women in the workplace and thereby support couples to balance the trade-offs between work and family. In the words of former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”  

This means not only increased flexibility in terms of hours and location for employees but more accommodating, compassionate policies around parental leave in order to encourage partners to share the responsibility of childcare. Leaders in this field include asset manager Abrdn, which offers nine months of fully paid parental leave, or insurer Aviva, which offers six months. These policies make a difference: since introducing its equal parental leave policy, Aviva has found that 80% of fathers in the business have taken at least five months off work for the birth of a new child. 

Sponsoring a local girls’ sports team is an effective way to equip a new generation of women with essential skills of teamwork, leadership, and resilience.

2. Equip employees with the language to make the tough calls, without blaming others

Microaggressions directed at women in the workplace (being talked over, patronized, or left out of meetings), may seem minor in isolation, like the emotional equivalent of a paper cut. However, while people can shrug off the occasional “paper cut”, when women are subject to cut after cut, this can be both painful and damaging, stymying careers and diminishing creativity, energy, and sense of belonging.

However, preventing these microaggressions can be challenging, especially if businesses try to avoid a “callout culture.” Rather than microaggressions, it is helpful to think of these incidents as “micro-inequities” to remove the association with aggression. This defuses the tensions of a callout culture and encourages those affected by these behaviors to speak up, without the prospect of a defensive response. In order to address micro-inequities proactively, businesses can introduce inclusive language guidelines to equip employees with the language to work together in a respectful way.

Examples of using inclusive language can include asking for and respecting people’s choice of personal pronoun, or changing language in policies or guidelines to be gender neutral, for example by changing “husband” or “wife” to “partner”.

3. Tighten guidelines to make sure that hybrid working benefits everyone 

Hybrid working has given employees far greater flexibility, which is especially valuable to those who have caregiving or homemaking responsibilities – tasks that still primarily fall to women. These responsibilities, or the “invisible job,” as Paula Fyans calls it, create an additional mental load on women, on top of their paid jobs. There is increasing evidence that hybrid working helps women to deal with this workload while increasing their participation in the workplace. A recent study found that women are more likely to work full-time in sectors where hybrid working is the norm with the effect magnified for mothers. 

Hybrid working also has its downsides as workers can struggle to make an impact while working remotely. According to Deloitte’s study, 37% of women who work in a hybrid situation say that they have felt excluded from meetings, important decisions, or informal interactions, and 30% say they don’t have adequate access to leaders. 

Organizations should put in place clear guidelines as to which types of meeting can be held online and which should be face-to-face, in order to ensure equitable treatment of men and women in the workplace. Businesses should be especially conscious of scheduling face-to-face team meetings for times that work for everyone, considering employees’ caregiving responsibilities, for example, by avoiding scheduling meetings during school pick-up times. 

“Employers can reduce the grip of 'greedy work' and create more equity in the workplace by giving men and women more predictable hours and flexibility on where and when work gets done”

4. Partner with external organisations to help women and girls access the leadership skills they need to succeed 

Beyond internal policies, it is important that organizations support their employees to make the most of external resources for career development. Associations such as Business  Professional Women provide women with peer support and the opportunity to grow their networks and advance their careers through workshops and activities supported by local businesses. Such initiatives constitute a crucial step in fixing the “leaky pipeline” of women to senior leadership. 

Another example of how businesses can increase women’s participation in work at an even earlier stage is through sports. According to an EY study, 80% of female Fortune 500 CEOs played sports in their formative years. Organizations have the opportunity to get involved at grassroots level. Sponsoring a local girls’ sports team is an effective way to equip a new generation of women with essential skills of teamwork, leadership, and resilience.  For example global chemical company INEOS supports sports teams around the world. The company supports AGNA – a girls netball association in Switzerland. This corporate support has helped grow the grassroots club – founded to encourage girls to stay in sport during their teenage years – from its inception to a thriving club that has developed many girls, some of whom have made it to represent the Swiss National teams. 

Reframing the problem 

There is a huge opportunity for employers to shift the emphasis to action on workplace inequality. Goldin’s research plus many other studies show that women with more flexible workplaces reported higher levels of productivity and loyalty to their employers, as well as being likely to stay longer with their current employers.

Goldin’s commitment to the promoting research on gender in the economy provides evidence-based data about how expectations for and of women and the parenthood effect have shaped the inequities we see in the workplace today including the gender pay gap. Her research also also points the way for action as highlighted above.

A positive reframing of the challenge helps involve all employees in creating a healthier culture that supports women in reaching their full potential at work. In the process, they will be improving the workplace for everyone.  



Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.




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