News & Views‌

The Gender Games: Women are still fighting for equality in the workplace

January 2, 2019 - 9:38am
UNIBusiness Editor
Gender Games graphic

Jean Trainor (Accounting ’75) entered the world of business during a different time, when many women weren’t treated equally in the workplace.

After graduating from UNI in 1975 as one of just a handful of women in accounting, Trainor encountered barriers as she transitioned into professional life. At her accounting firm, she was one of two certified public accountants. It was a small firm, and Trainor didn’t see a future because of her gender.

Despite her early tribulations, Trainor considers herself one of the lucky ones. She found a job as a controller at John Deere Community Credit Union, now Veridian Credit Union, and didn’t encounter the same discrimination. She eventually become the CEO in 1982.

“I was fortunate enough to join the credit union,” Trainor said. “I didn’t encounter the barriers that a lot of women have to face. As women in business, we all have the experience of being in a meeting and being treated like we're invisible. That’s kind of a common experience for women, not only in business, but in other fields as well.

“I’ve had that experience. But overall, I was very fortunate because not a lot of women at that time had those opportunities.”

Good, but not good enough

Business and inclusion have changed since Trainor entered the workforce in the 1970s. Women are being put in senior roles at an increasing rate, but the discrepancy is still there.

On the 2018 Fortune 500 list, there were just 24 women in CEO positions—4.8 percent. The number is actually down from the 2017 Fortune 500 list, which saw a record-breaking 32 women CEOs.

In the boardroom, there are still 12 Fortune 500 companies that haven’t added a single female board member, according to a 2018 study from Equilar and CNBC. In salary terms, former Mattel CEO Margaret Georgiadis was the highest-compensated female CEO in 2017 at $31.3 million, which is just one-third of what the highest-paid male CEO made in 2017—$103.2 million by Broadcom’s Hock Tan.

The UNIBusiness school’s gender disparity isn’t as wide, but there is still a gap—about 37 percent of the student population is female.

“Being in a field that is more dominated by men, you feel like you can’t be there,” said Mushaun Miller (Organizational Leadership and Psychology), who interned at Enterprise in Bloomington, Minn., in sales and management last summer. “Sometimes you feel like your opinion may not be taken as seriously.”

Inclusion, specifically in business, is a topic that is near and dear to Miller’s heart.

She entered college as a psychology major, with a specific interest in human behavior in the workplace. Because Miller’s interests closely aligned with the UNIBusiness management track, she joined the UNI Women in Business club to learn more about the business side of her psychology courses.

What ultimately convinced Miller to add a major in business were the gender statistics.

“It just opened my eyes,” Miller said “We talked about how women are under-represented in a lot of different industries, not just business. It’s full of men who have the power, and they are in all of the CEO positions. There are only a few women who are on the boards of these giant corporations. It’s always been interesting to me. Why is that the case?”

Those reasons vary. A quick Google search of the reason women aren’t included in leadership positions brings up millions of results, and each study or article presents a different problem.

There isn’t one, clear-cut consensus.

“Everyone has their own theories and reasons,” Miller said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s answered, and I don’t think there is one right answer. I think it’s a combination of reasons, and that journey is personal for every woman.”

Most of the reasons revolve around traditional gender roles, with men being the most likely to be in a position of power

Women typically receive different treatment through implicit bias upper management, not only in everyday interactions, but in managerial decisions as well. Since men make up the majority of decision-makers in companies, women are 15 percent less likely to be considered for management positions, according to a 2017 study by LeanIn and McKinsey.

It creates a cycle. When women aren’t in decision-making positions, other women are less likely to be promoted, which continues to fuel the gap.

“It’s difficult to change that in a short amount of time because the decision-makers are the decision-makers that we’ve always had,” Trainor said. “So in order for a change to occur, you need to have the leadership recognize the value of inclusion.”

Women are also typically penalized in their careers for having children. According to a Harvard Business Review study in 2013, mothers were offered $11,000 less in salary, on average, than childless women applying for the same job. Fathers weren’t penalized at all. The study found that “the raters, displaying a clear form of status-based discrimination, revealed that they assumed the mothers to be inherently less competent and less committed.”

And since there is a disparity in women in leadership roles, many school-aged girls are not being exposed to potential career paths in business. That affects how they view their future as they grow up.

“We are hit by these messages at a very early age,” said Leslie Wilson, Dean of UNIBusiness. “How do you overcome the messages you receive from the movies you watch? The princess who is always saved by the prince? The lack of female heroes in our movies? We’re hit by this all the time. So how do we change the message?

“That is very, very difficult, and I don’t have an answer. It’s just something we need to recognize. These messages create the unconscious biases that we have, and we all have them.”

Raising the bottom line

Placing women in leadership positions isn’t just a “feel good” initiative; there is a real benefit to having more diversity among decision-makers. It improves the bottom line. And, multiple studies back that up.

A 2017 report by the Peterson Group, which examined more than 21,000 companies in 91 countries, found that companies with more than 30 percent female leadership can expect an improvement to their net margin of up to 6 percent.

A recent McKinsey study found that gender diversity is correlated with “profitability and value creation.” In 2017, companies in the top quartile of executive-level gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability, an improvement over the 15 percent found by the same study in 2014.

From a marketing standpoint, businesses typically target both women and men, so having more women in decision-making roles brings an important perspective for the target audience for the specific product or service.

“Most companies’ target customers include males and females, so it is necessary for those companies to have a gender balanced group of employees because females can bring special expertise to the company and contribute to the understanding of target customers, firm strategy and management,” said Ronnie Chen, assistant professor of finance.

Awareness of these benefits is key in helping companies make a more conscious effort to hire with diversity in mind.

“In the past, it’s been perceived that including women was just a nice thing to do,” Trainor said. “However, there is a strong business case there. We need to have the conversation that diversity is just good business. Hopefully more businesses will see the value and start to change more than they have historically.”

Creating opportunities for school-aged girls is important in making a difference as well. Miller didn’t see business as a viable option until she got involved with the UNI Women in Business club early in her collegiate life. In high school, there were business classes she could have enrolled in, but she didn’t receive encouragement to join.

 Going forward, Miller wants more female role models talking to students to show that there are many women who have seen success in business.

“I think one of the solutions is to have more women be role models,” Miller said. “I wish I had more business class opportunities in high school. We just need to educate that this is a growing and viable field. It isn’t a man thing. We can do just as well, and we can be just as successful in this field.”

A passion at UNIBusiness

One of UNIBusiness Dean Leslie Wilson’s key goals is to close the enrollment disparity between men and women inside the school and in the professional world. Her goal is to bring the student population to a 50-50 ratio.

“We need diversity in the classroom to combat feelings of isolation, whether it be gender diversity, ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, sexual orientation diversity—all these different types of diversity,” Wilson said. “That is the business environment today, and we need to create that in the classroom to better prepare students for it and to provide the diversity of employees that employers are seeking.”

The UNI Women in Business student organization, created spring 2015, is just one of the school’s efforts in reaching that goal. The club provides an environment for women in business to discuss and connect with like-minded individuals.

It also focuses on providing role models for women in business by bringing in professionals to speak to students in all areas of business.

This spring, the UNI Women in Business club held the first-ever Women of UNIBusiness Hall of Fame induction event. The inaugural class included nine women, recognizing some of the trailblazers in the business world.

“It was an honor,” said Trainor, who was a part of the class. “When I was in school, I was one of a handful of women in accounting at the time, so to recognize other women who have found success was amazing to see.”

Miller, who is the vice president of membership development for the club, hopes to include younger students into the group in the future, to help shape their view and expectations for their own careers.

“I want people of all ages to be included,” Miller said. “I want to bring in speakers. I want to bring in alumni. I want to bring in stories. These things are really important and can really open their eyes. Awareness is important, and we want to highlight women who are doing spectacular things.”

Voices for all

More women are stepping into leadership positions every year, but there is still work to be done.

Creating an environment for women to succeed in the workplace, whether that be through mentorship opportunities, advancement opportunities or decision-making power, will be important in creating more equality within companies.

Including a more diverse set of voices at the decision-making table will benefit a company, not just ethically, but financially as well.

“There is something so wonderful and beautiful about bringing in people of all different perspectives and backgrounds to make decisions,” Miller said. “Ultimately, that’s what we want to do. I think it’s very beneficial for businesses to have many different perspectives before making a decision, and that includes women, yes, but also race, religion and other types of diversity.”

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UNI Business

UNIBusiness Editor

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