The global pandemic disrupted the workplace as we knew it. And unfortunately, it exacerbated many issues and challenges that existed pre-COVID.

Women, in particular, have been significantly impacted.

According to LeanIn and McKinsey & Co’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ report, over 1 in 4 women may downshift or leave their careers. It also revealed that COVID-19 could set women back half a decade.

Economic decision-making is dominated by men. In 2019, women comprised 39.7% of new appointments to ASX 200 boards. To date in 2021, this number is 45.5%. The statistics for female CFOs and executives tell the same story – with a census finding only 30 companies of the 200 had 40% to 60% women in their executive leadership team. 

Despite the gains for women in the workplace, they remain underrepresented in high-level managerial positions – and the impact of the pandemic could mean far fewer women in leadership and far fewer women on track to be future leaders.

So now more than ever, businesses need to step up as progressive companies and break down barriers for women to move into leadership roles, and be better represented in the workplace overall.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March, is #ChooseToChallenge.

Here are 7 things businesses can do to help build an inclusive workplace for women.

1. Ensure leaders are responsible for lifting women up

Leaders have the power to influence, drive and change business culture. They need to be held accountable and set an example. Having transparent discussions at work about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour from your staff is a strong starting point. From there, building an environment of support for women should filter down and across all levels. But it needs to start from the top.

2. Challenge gender bias in the workplace

Businesses can create opportunities for women to gain more exposure to scenarios that will enable them to move into leadership levels. In addition, acknowledge and correct double standards that still exist: congratulating men when they take time off to look after the kids, meanwhile, women who do the same thing are often seen as lacking commitment to their employer.

3. Offer equal pay and greater flexibility

 Australia’s current full-time gender pay gap is currently 13.4% where women earn on average $242.90 per week less than men. The gender pay gap is the result of social and economic factors that combine to reduce women’s earning capacity over their lifetime. In addition to this, many women continue to be the main caretaker in the household. So women require more work flexibility than ever, as they are always ‘on’ and balancing double-shifts (of work and parenting) and therefore can be more susceptible to stress and burnout. Genuine flexibility will help ease this burden.

4. Acknowledge and celebrate the work of women

Due to certain male-dominated industries and sectors, workplaces can become a ‘boys’ club’. This holds women back from networking opportunities and being excluded from promotions. Part of this problem can be addressed by proactively flipping it – continually recognise and highlight the talented women in your organisation and choose scenarios that are inclusive and welcoming over ‘boys only’ settings. 

5. Stand up for your female colleagues

Allowing your female colleagues to have a voice is important, if not more important, than speaking up for them. Providing opportunities and platforms for women to speak contributes to workplaces fostering equal representation and value of their staff. Businesses can go further by providing both men and women the tools to encourage workplace inclusivity such as reading material and resources, external speakers and educational webinars.

6. Call out casual sexism and bad behaviour

Failing to address poor behaviour in the workplace typically results in a culture of disrespect, low trust levels and fear. Sexist attitudes and practices can also predict tolerance of more harmful behaviour toward women. Silence is not golden and inaction can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as support for the status quo.

7. Choose to play your part

Don’t just recognise International Women’s Day but consciously decide every day that you will celebrate women’s achievements and accelerate women’s equality. No matter your role, everyone plays a part in contributing to positive change and helping to forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers can thrive.

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