What does the future of work look like for women? 

Woman on video call from home

Not as bright as we’d like! Lagging flexible work options, inequities in domestic and caregiving responsibilities and persistent (and often unfounded) differences in their confidence levels are hampering women’s ability to thrive at work. We studied three populations of women to see how their participation in the future of work might look and considered what we need to do to fully unlock their participation and help them realize their potential. The headline underscores that without a concerted effort to change the trajectory, we will fail to embrace equity in the future of work for women. We will neglect to bring those lost to the workforce back into productive roles, we will struggle to ensure decision makers are not sitting in male-dominated offices, and we will fail to extend their working life in sustainable ways – critical to ensuringe their financial future and closing pay and retirement gaps. With talent shortages and the rising importance of empathy and creativity (skills women bring in abundance), the enormous benefits that an equitable workplace brings for all are a clear call for change.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Sian Beilock, a leading consultant on the brain science behind human performance, who shared that: “Women tend to think that if they got the middle mark in the class, they can't go on to the next class; whereas a man will tend to think he can. We're losing out on women who would potentially raise their hand to go on to that next role or be considered.” This bias in self-perception also shows in Mercer’s research, with women less likely to believe that the skills they have today could be relevant for a job they’ve never done. This is a critical issue as we embrace more remote working (so others have less of a view around capabilities) and move towards more skills-based organizations.

Sian suggests that “now we have to think about a system that doesn't require someone to raise their hand to go into a role. But a system of managers and talent recruiters who are actually going out and finding these people. So understanding there's this gap in confidence, I'd be willing to argue that it's not based on a gap in ability, right? Then, it's really up to the organization – to the system – to start changing how they find people. Otherwise, they're just missing human capital.” Technology is no doubt part of the solution: Talent intelligence platforms like Gloat and Eightfold offer a broader and more equitable view of people’s skills. But biases are slow to change and even slower to eradicate, and can be amplified by technology if left unchecked.

Change is long overdue. Interventions need to look different in a post-pandemic environment, and I believe progress can be made if we act now.

What we know about working women today

Pay, workload and career prospects weigh heavy on women’s minds today. Consider these numbers from Mercer’s 2022-2023 Global Talent Trends and 2023 Inside Employees’ Minds research:
  • When asked what contributes to a feeling of burnout, women are more significantly more likely than men to say that they feel overworked (30% vs. 24%) and exhausted (29% vs. 21%). 
  • Only 54% of women believe they are fairly compensated compared to 70% of men.
  • More women would consider leaving their current employer due to pay (58% vs. 51%).
  • Women are also less likely to believe their manager is invested in their career than men (68% vs. 75%).
We know that women bear the brunt of childcare, eldercare and domestic support – which is often the reason why women prefer remote/hybrid more than men (52% vs. 45%). There are real concerns about how this will play out in terms of pay and promotion (which too often are driven by presenteeism and social networks nurtured “after hours,”) as well as the long-term impact on financial security.

Women are gaining ground in the boardroom and beyond

In North America and Europe, women held 29% of director positions in 2022 and helped their companies to outperform by a significant margin. Further, women now hold 32% of top leadership positions — the highest ever. Obviously, these numbers are a long way from achieving gender equity. To secure sustainable parity, women need to step into leadership roles and gain vital commercial responsibility earlier in their careers as well as be afforded exposure to different businesses and markets. Companies must re-think what’s needed for large P&L, office and functional leadership roles, and make them compatible with people who value work/life integration and prefer to stay closer to home.    

One example where more women can add value is in furthering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We know this continues to be a critical success factor for companies this year (in the top three, according to HR leaders). Male executives are more likely to say their company has made slow progress on DEI, but they see less of a need for a designated DEI leader. Women are more focused on building networked organizations and prioritizing empathetic leadership – two critical areas not just for DEI but also for upholding Good Work standards and resetting of the future of work agenda.

What the future generation needs from work

New research by Oliver Wyman  reveals that Gen Z women (born between 1997 and 2012) are leaving their jobs at higher rates than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to have “side hustles” and having lived through some tough times, are convinced there is a better way. The Gen X “work hard, play hard” mantra falls on deaf ears for Gen Zs. They are not prepared to sacrifice today for benefits tomorrow – preferring the phrase YOLO (you only live once). Leaders looking to future-proof their business will be smart to take advantage of what Gen Z brings to the table, and again we see alignment with female leadership approaches and Gen Z values. According to the research, Gen Z value equity and transparency and expect their company to measure success beyond just shareholder return. They also aspire to move roles quicker than any generation, creating networked organizations with democratized opportunities to build skills will be important to keep Gen Zs focused and engaged.

Take action for a brighter future for all

Women are far from a homogenous group, but there are specific actions that organizations and managers can implement now to help them thrive for the future of work.

Manager, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Am I doing enough to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture?
    Pay is not the be-all, end-all but it’s certainly important. Have you taken a hard look at the gender pay gap on your team? Speak with HR about how to address gaps, not just with one-time stop-gap measures but also more systemic approach to ensure sustainable equity. Another area of focus is work/life integration. Delivering on the promise of a more balanced future means making it easier to step down, dial back, and still stay in the workplace.
  2. Am I inadvertently making it tougher for women to be promoted?
    Consider what it will take to fill the talent pipeline with more women. Are the stepping stone roles (the ones that set people up for future success) available and accessible to women? Take a look at the eligibility criteria for large, strategic business-facing roles, including the possibility for remote/hybrid arrangements. Have an honest and open conversation with the women on your team to broaden their career horizons, and help them to equate opportunity with their own wealth potential. As their manager, your confidence in them will go a long way. Introduce them to role models of senior women in non-traditional roles, and facilitate mentorship opportunities to help them step out of their comfort zone.
  3. How can I design work to align to what women value?
    Think about the nature of the work that is being done, how projects are assigned, and how performance is measured. Is well-being at the heart of work design on your team? Are remote/hybrid workers missing out on key opportunities? Also consider the women on your team who may be returning from leave – help them stay connected and target them for important and visible projects upon their return to help re-integrate them as an important member of the team.
  4. How can I help women to build in-demand skills that will fuel their career?
    Consider the 3 most critical skills needed on your team today, and then the 3 that will drive growth for the organization in the next 3-5 years. How many of your female team members are well equipped with these skills? To support skill-building, open up projects and tasks as stretch assignments and encourage women to be intentional about where they spend their time and with whom encourage. This can help them to balance delivering today with staying marketable for tomorrow.

Executives and HR – let’s bring about change together!

  1. Come off mute on your DEI ambitions and take multi-pronged action.
    The time to be shy about your DEI goals and progress has passed. The Good Work Alliance underscores the importance of being fully transparent on goals and regularly reporting on both activity and outcomes. Mercer research shows that real progress on DEI happens when companies take action on five or more strategies in unison. Consider what it would take for your workforce to represent the markets within which you operate.  Put together a plan to address pay, pension and health equity gaps. Conduct an internal labor market analysis to understand where women might be under-represented compared to men to flag concerns around leveling, highlight premature exits and identify choke points or career stagnation. 
  2. Leverage technology to further women’s career trajectories.
    Consider implementing a talent intelligence platform like Gloat, Eightfold or Skyhive to help women recognize the breadth of skills they already have, as well as a career pathing platform like Fuel50 to prompt them to build skills aligned with desired destination roles or pay ambitions. These tools can also serve as internal talent marketplaces to democratize access to opportunities as well as encourage skill mentorship, which can be an accelerator.
  3. Ensure the ethical use of AI.
    Algorithmic biases do not favor women, so make sure you understand how machine learning is being used and the data sets from which they are drawing. At a minimum, ensure you are compliant with local legislation on how AI is being used in talent process, ensuring that people (not AI) are in the driving seat when making decisions. Put in place checks and balances to prevent AI-driven adverse impact to any population in hiring, promotion and pay.
  4. Rebuild work models around greater self-promotion and agency.
    Help women to have more flexible work options (i.e., hybrid, remote, part-time, etc.) that work for their lifestyles and promote skill-building to build confidence in their ability to do a different job in the future. Ensure that you take a gender lens when considering M&A, divestitures and restructuring and separate the person from their role today to truly unlock the potential within your workforce

The above strategies are not just good for those who identify as women; these benefit all workers and are vital to building a sustainable people model fit for the future of work. When people thrive, societies thrive. While the Covid years accelerated many of the aspects of the future of work that are positive for women (such as flexible/remote working, empathy and human-centric leadership), they also exposed gaps in the ways in which companies care for their employees’ social, mental, financial and physical health.  Issues that weigh heavy on the minds of our female workforce. 

If we leave the future of work to evolve without paying attention to the unique factors that help women thrive, we will fail to fully #EmbraceEquity. To ensure equal representation and participation, women across generations must have a leading role in co-creating the future of work.

About the author(s)
Kate Bravery

A Senior Partner and Mercer’s Global Advisory Solutions & Insight Leader. She has worked in Asia, Australia, the US, and Europe – helping organizations achieve a talent advantage through their people.

In her current role, she supports Mercer’s thought leadership agenda, knowledge management and colleague sales enablement. She also leads on solution innovations for HR buyers and colleague learning in the Talent, Reward & Transformation practices. She has held office, practice, and market leadership roles at Mercer and prior to her current position she was the Career Global Practices Leader and before that the Growth Markets Regional Practice Leader for Talent Strategy and Organizational Performance.

Kate is the author of Mercer’s annual Global Talent Trends study and speaks regularly on the future of work. She is currently partnering with the World Economic Forum under their Good Work Alliance project to define Good Work standards and metrics. She is a non-executive director of Digital Frontiers.

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