How Associations Can Help Women Overcome Workplace Challenges

Despite decades of progress, women still only occupy a quarter of C-suite positions in the U.S. Only 12 women headed Fortune 100 companies in the year ending in June 2022, the same number as the year before.

Since March is Women’s History Month, it’s an optimal time to shine a light on the persistent challenges women face in the workplace. Associations can play a more active role in educating their audience about the state of women in their industry and supporting women in their quest for equal opportunities.

Challenges faced by women in the workplace

Throughout their career, women are often the primary caregivers for children and aging parents. Some manage these responsibilities despite inflexible time-off policies that make it difficult to leave their desks for school events or doctors’ appointments. Others can only manage responsibilities at home by taking on less demanding roles at work.

Fewer than 6% of employers offer childcare at or near their workplaces. During the pandemic, 45% of mothers with children aged five and under who left the workforce cited childcare as a major reason for their departure, compared with just 14% of fathers who said the same. Many of these women haven’t returned to the workplace after the pandemic.

The level playing field becomes quite hilly when you have to take maternity leave and then find affordable child care. When childcare costs too much, one parent, usually the woman, quits their job and stays home.

When women reenter the workplace. They’re behind on their career track and in compensation. An employment gap of one year translates to a 39% decrease in a woman’s annual earnings—a decrease that compounds in the following years.

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report sums it up: “Women are exhausted from the extra hurdles they face trying to advance; they feel overworked and undervalued, and they are fed up with microaggressions and toxic workplace cultures.”

how associations can help women - fed up woman

The impact on associations when women professionals struggle

With responsibilities at work and home, many women can’t spare the time or energy for association volunteering. Association committees and boards lose access to their inclusive leadership style. When women don’t enter the leadership pipeline, achieving DEI goals becomes more difficult. This lack of gender and viewpoint diversity is especially problematic in traditionally male-dominated industries.

McKinsey reports that many of the mothers who dropped out of the workforce were “mid-tenure employees.” Early-career women seeking mentors and role models feel this loss the hardest.

If associations ignore critical industry issues affecting the careers of women, member engagement is affected. Feeling like you belong is difficult when the faces in leadership don’t look like yours. A lack of diversity inhibits members from trying to fit in.

How associations can help women professionals

These problems won’t go away by themselves. If you don’t fix them, women will assume you’re fine with the status quo and they’ll go away instead.

Bring facts into the light

Never assume you’re doing okay on diversity issues. You don’t know. Even if women are represented in your leadership, you don’t know what it took for them to get there and how their path compared to men in leadership positions.

Do your research, like the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) did. Their salary and compensation report, Women in Facility Management, provides “concrete evidence on the state of women in facility management” and “proposes future steps in a significant area with little previous information and data.”

IFMA plans to find out why many women leave the industry early in their careers and what can be done to retain them—a challenge many other industries face.

Survey employers and women professionals in your industry for a “state of women in the industry” report. Collect stories that will help you educate employers about what’s really going on.

Examine your traditions and practices

In the pursuit of DEI, most associations have already reviewed policies and practices to make sure they’re not excluding or harming anyone. In researching this piece, I came across posts, articles, and research reports describing the biases experienced by members of scientific and medical societies. Is this one of your male members talking?

“I think about the bar at meetings. The important stuff—the intangible side of science—happens there, and I worry about a male bias of who goes for drinks after the talks. Even when women join us, men may be more likely to hit on them after a few drinks rather than focus on helping their careers.”

Find out who’s not coming to your events and why. Dig deeper beyond your official events to see what’s going on around them.

how associations can help woman - exhausted woman

Educate the industry: employers and male allies

The McKinsey report said, “If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders, they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too.”

Don’t let industry leaders ignore the issues that create challenges for a large percentage of their workforce:

•    Inflexible work schedules
•    Caretaking responsibilities
•    Lack of affordable childcare
•    Returning to work after maternity leave

Employee expectations have changed since the pandemic. Work/life balance is a bigger priority. If employers want to attract and retain top talent, they must become a more inclusive company (and industry) and find solutions to these issues.

Host town halls and educational programs that address workplace issues, suggest solutions, share success stories, and describe next steps. Create organizational self-assessments that give employers the data they need to improve policies, procedures, and the workplace environment.

Help women refine their leadership skills

Both men and women must develop leadership skills, but fewer women are in the leadership pipeline. Women’s leadership development programs help women acquire the skills they need and prepare them to fight gender bias and overcome other barriers. These programs provide a safe place to share experiences, challenges, and successes. Participants develop a cohort of peers who may also become lifelong friends.

Deliver education that’s accessible to working (or stay-at-home) mothers

Most mothers have a hard time getting away to conferences—or can’t afford them. Virtual conferences and online learning programs allow them to keep up their skills and credentials, network with others, and put their name and face out there.

Help women connect with peers and mentors

People usually learn to network by trial and error. Help women along by teaching them how to network and providing structured virtual and in-person opportunities for meeting their peers and role models. The American Society of Echocardiography does this with their Women in Echo community.

Teach women what to look for in a mentor, how to find one, and how to ask someone to be their mentor—or do the connecting for them. EDUCAUSE‘s mentoring platform helps members find mentors and mentees, and provides
resources and check-ins along the way to ensure they’re getting what they need out of the opportunity.

Educate members about the difference between mentoring and sponsoring. Unlike mentors, sponsors don’t just provide advice but “actively look for opportunities for their proteges, and… advocate for them to get that next promotion, stretch project, professional development, or other opportunity.”

Provide career resources and support

Help members organize peer support groups for women in specific job roles, career paths or stages, and specialties. A benefit of participating in a cohort-based online learning program is enjoying the support of fellow learners.

Seek relationships with coaches and headhunters who specialize in your industry and understand the challenges that women face. Invite coaches to lead educational programs. Ask them to offer discounted sessions at your conferences—a perk for attendees and lead generation for them.

As young women enter the workplace, they’re seeking employers and professional communities that offer a healthy, sustainable path to success. Associations that understand the challenges they face will find a place in their lives.

diversity, equity and inclusion
leadership training
cohort programs
industry education
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