Professors Anita Bosch, Stellenbosch Business School and Lize Booysen, Antioch University, explore three approaches companies and organizations have implemented to reduce gender inequalities in the workplace, and contend that the gendered nature of work requires deep changes to workplace practices.
Workplace Approaches and Women’s Inequality: Embracing change is the future by CoBS Editor Ana Sofia Bello. With kind acknowledgements to Anita Bosch. Related research: Women in business in Africa:(Re)claiming our agency, Anita Bosch and Lize Booysen, South African Journal of Business Management, Vol 52, No. 1 (2021).
Women in the Workforce
Paid work is considered to be an imperative aspect of life for everyone that we all need to participate in, especially given the capitalistic nature of our societies in which we live. Indeed, it is seen to be an important part of life that provides people with reputation, success and lessons. In this light, who is to say that any one person – regardless of gender* – is not allowed to work and receive economic gain from it?
Women’s participation in the workforce is not an unfamiliar idea in most parts of the world. Moreover, they have been fighting for a fair place in the workforce for years, but still research finds that women in traditional societies remain undervalued. For instance, women business owners in Africa are confirmed to be exceptionally low, except for micro- and nano-enterprises. With this in mind, in a 2021 editorial Women in Business in Africa, Profs. Anita Bosch and Lize Booysen decided to delve into the positive effect that women have on societies and propose how business can better understand women’s contribution towards the workplace, entrepreneurial behaviour, and business outcomes.
Integration often misfires
Previous research has shown that especially in Africa there is a long way to go before reaching equality between women and men at work. Treating women and men in exactly the same way has also led to a false sense of meritocracy within workplaces, ignoring the societal expectations such as caregiving and emotional labour that is predominantly expected of women.
These challenges – and others – also occur on a global scale and, as Profs. Bosch and Booysen point out, companies and organizations tend to employ three common approaches to try and integrate women into their workforce. The downside is that there are major drawbacks that appear in each approach which more often than not have a heavy, negative impact on the benefit that business can reap through inclusive workplace environments.
The first approach – “fix the woman” – assumes that men and women are exactly the same and that providing identical treatment to both, whether this involves the structure of the organization, forms of communication, or societal support, will allow both women and men to equally prosper.
However, research over the years shows that a “fix the woman” approach is unsound since societal expectations of women and men are different. Through this approach, workplaces are absolved from any formal change and instead, women are asked to change and adapt to what exists at the workplace. In fact, many women become the target of workplace change efforts.
Indeed, Bosch and Booysen highlight the dysfunction of such an approach during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Companies were more prone to laying off women than men, and they took up a larger share of childcare than their partners. In a nutshell, women received unfair treatment as well as having to take on and deal with additional responsibilities. As such, the “fix the woman” approach essentially creates a false sense of meritocracy, ignoring differences that women and men experience societally while attempting to change women to fit into organizations.
The second approach that Profs. Bosch and Booysen highlight is that of “valuing the feminine”. Here, the approach offers an opposite to “fix the woman”, celebrating the differences that men and women offer and valuing feminine ways of working. Women business owners may be good at building social networks and have fewer problems with unions and government regulations.
The issue with this approach, however, is that it reaffirms gender stereotypes where women are said to naturally possess relational skills, implying that they do not work hard at it. This consequently manifests in women receiving lower performance ratings and fewer promotions and ultimately reinforces the gender pay gap that societies globally have been seeking to eradicate.
And lastly, “creating equal opportunity” goes a step further, in essence admitting that inequity at work is a product of socio-structural barriers that prevent equal access for women. This approach values policies that are women-friendly and that need to be implemented, as well as providing support for women in all workplace situations.
For some, the changes occurring under such an approach would subtly indicate that women are difficult to manage and need special allowances in the workplace. It might also indicate that it deters men from hiring women in order not to have undergo these additional changes when bringing women into the workplace. Obviously, this isn’t the desired goal when it comes to integrating people in the workplace. There needs to be another solution.
Driving change to turnaround women’s inequality
As mentioned, feminine-inspired businesses tend to build more network business structures and are more inclusive and people-focused. They additionally value empowerment where leadership is co-created. Such an environment favors innovation and focuses on fostering relationships to generate healthy environments, as opposed to masculine businesses that thrive on competitive and independent environments.
Profs. Anita Bosch and Lize Booysen emphasize that their aim isn’t to explain that women-led organizations operate better and generate more production, but to stress that once you balance feminine and masculine approaches, the potential exists to build more productive environments that will subsequently cascade and positively impact both the economy and society.
As such, companies would be wise to understand that a first step is to acknowledge that there are inequalities and differences present and to highlight the need for gender-aware policies which involve deep workplace changes. Moreover, Profs. Bosch and Booysen point out the role governments can also play by creating public and private partnerships to support the advancement of women entrepreneurs.
Women themselves too can take an active part through participating in training initiatives on adaptive strategies to navigate hostile environments in highly gendered work environments – thereby improving their experiences in the workplace. And last but not least, researchers should contribute by shifting their focus to investigating the complexity inherent in the gendered nature of enterprises and performance.
Work, as mentioned at the beginning to this article, is indeed an important part of life that provides people with reputation, success, and many lessons. In this light, who is to say that any one person, regardless of gender, is not only allowed to work – but thrive?
*Note: In this article, gender is reflected in the binary, i.e. woman and man.
- Link up with Profs. Anita Bosch and Lize Booysen on LinkedIn
- Visit the Women’s Report website
- Visit Lize Booysen’s website
- Read a related article: How managers can create a culture for women to thrive
- Discover Stellenbosch Business School.
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