With almost half (47%) of Brits thinking gender equality will be reached in their lifetime, up from 40% in 2018, the outlook seems quite positive. But with the World Economic Forum reporting that the global gender gap will take 132 years to close, the landscape is much starker. 

Separating fact from fiction, cutting through the noise and dismantling the data are challenging tasks, so this article tackles five typical myths in popular gender equity discourse. This article is for those in the Diversity Equity Inclusion world who are open to embracing different perspectives. 

Myth 1: It is a level playing field 

All Plain Sailing? 

When a company announces a junior hire will be starting in a team today, there’s a 50:50 chance it will be a woman. As the graph from the 2023 Bloomberg Gender Equity Index shows, young men and women are joining the workforce in equal measures. In the UK, they are also fresh from the gendered educational gap at GCSE, A Level and University levels, where girls routinely outperform boys. The young people in an organisation will receive this fact pattern positively as evidence that we have perhaps reached gender parity in the workplace.  

It’s true; the playing field is flat – at entry level. 

The first few years of employment see women and men progress similarly. Employers reward women throughout their 20s who can fit into the existing structures by standing out and advocating for themselves. From our experience of (both being and) working with women for almost three decades, things change as women move toward their 30s – when they are more likely to begin managing others.  

The Storm Clouds Form 

Gender bias begins to creep in. For example, we see a shift, as the agentic traits that have thus far benefited women tend to start working against them. Women can become trapped in a Double Bind where they sacrifice being liked by their colleagues if they assume masculine qualities associated with leadership: assertiveness and decisiveness. Yet if they exercise empathy and compassion at work, traditionally considered feminine traits, they’re less likely to be regarded as leadership material. 

This phenomenon is one of the reasons that, at this stage, most men are ‘making it’ into management positions, and only some women are. This first set of career hurdles is what I refer to in Coaching Women: Changing the System Not the Person as the ‘Broken Bridge’.  

For the DEI Experts: 

If you have junior women in your teams, consider how to ensure they remain in your organisation and progress to senior levels. It’s more time-consuming and costly to poach senior women talent from other organisations when you could invest in conserving your in-house talent. Watch ECC’s video Where Have All the Women Leaders Gone? and read ECC’s explainer Why Are There so Few Women in Leadership Roles? to further explore this topic. 

Myth 2: “I’ll catch up with my career after parental leave.” 

Women’s Experiences 

Although women are consistently becoming mothers later in life, research shows around 82% of British women and 86% of American women do decide to have children. These figures don’t consider fostered or adopted children, so actual numbers are likely higher. Around 4/5 or more of women employees become mothers, and given the robust evidence that their career paths will veer drastically off course, they need to be supported.  

In heteronormative couples, 90% of new fathers return to full-time work after the birth of a child, whereas only 20% of women do. If women reduce their working hours after maternity leave, this impacts their salary and increases the time before their next promotion: the Motherhood Penalty. This alteration to their career trajectory can be shocking, as the unmistakable impact of motherhood hits unprepared women and leaves them nonplussed about how to get their careers back on track.  

Men’s Experiences 

On average, dads will be three years older than their partners and will have experienced fewer barriers to progression. These factors mean they are more likely to be ahead in occupational attainment and wage progression. But this set of circumstances pressures them to continue working and adhere to archaic familial roles: men ‘provide’ whilst women care for the children. Thoroughly depressing data from the Fawcett Society showed that, on average, 75% of dads took two weeks or less of paternal leave – a scarily short time for both the dad to bond with their new-born and the mum to receive additional support. When men request part-time work to prioritise childcare, they suffer a Fatherhood Forfeit: receiving suspicion from colleagues and facing longer wait times for promotions.  

For the DEI Experts: 

If you have people in your team who are approaching parenthood, they should be supported by your organisation so that they can make informed career choices. Reading ECC’s guide for Supporting and Retaining Working Parents could shed more light on how to do this.  

Alternatively, look at your parental policies. Is Shared Parental Leave encouraged? Is Parental Transition Coaching offered? It’s worth re-evaluating your progress in tackling organisational gender inequity to see where there might be room for improvement. 

Myth 3: “There’s no need for women-only programmes.” 

A fascinating ripple through the DEI world recently has been the questioning of women-only development programmes. Arguably this narrative is a distraction from the irrevocable evidence of gender disparity in workplaces. But “Equality means women don’t need anything different to men” is a viewpoint often adopted by men and, increasingly, younger women. Yet this is where equity comes into play; the alterations organisations make to support different groups to succeed. The tools for men and women can be the same, but additional space for women is often necessary to flex those tools and build awareness of the career landscape. 

Components of Women’s Developments Programmes 

With women’s development programmes (WDP), what’s crucial is that they consider the context of women’s experiences. Many women do WDPs with first-hand experience of the Double Bind, Motherhood Penalty or other career barriers. That’s why it’s necessary to facilitate spaces where the lens is focused on their specific gendered experience of workplaces to support them in navigating those barriers successfully.  

WDPs present women with the opportunity to be vulnerable – something most women leaders have worked to avoid as per the Double Bind. In sharing their experiences as a community, they can identify with and learn from one another, which creates a supportive and empathetic ‘holding environment’. These conditions and celebrating visible women role models also drive the development of authentic leadership identities and break down gender stereotypic beliefs.  

Gendered Workplace Differences  

Additionally, research shows that women tend to experience things in their careers that are different to men. WDPs should address these disparities as part of exploring the women-focused career landscape. 

As well as all the gendered barriers already discussed, women often have reduced access to networks that can advance their careers. Having a Sponsor is considered imperative by academics such as Ibarra to raise profiles and increase the likelihood of being invited to sit at the table. From extensive research, Ibarra documented that women need a senior-level sponsor because women are almost twice as likely to be sponsored by a non-manager or a first-level manager than men.  

Women are also subject to less relevant and constructive feedback than men in professional settings. New research from London Business School, Readyset and INSEAD adds to the evidence that managers prioritise giving women ‘kinder’ feedback, which can stunt women’s professional growth. However, learning from feedback is integral for women and their managers to see them as leaders. 

For the DEI Experts: 

To further explore the additional benefits of WDPs, reading pages 29-34 of Taking Gender into Account by Insead Business School could be helpful. To support your employees, this recent podcast from Harvard Business Review dives into the practicalities for women, particularly women of colour, of asking for and harnessing constructive feedback. 

Myth 4: “I haven’t faced any barriers.” 

It’s 2023, and women are assumed to have equal rights to men, while men and women only have fully equal legal rights in 14 countries. Still, in most countries (121 out of 190), the legislation prohibits gender discrimination in the workplace, so-called ‘first generation bias’. However, not all gendered workplace bias and career barriers are glaringly obvious – or even visible at all.  

Second Generation Bias  

Second Generation Bias is a term explaining the unintentional discrimination that persists, despite the relevant policies that work to encourage gender equity. Researchers Ibarra, Ely and Kolb describe how Second-Generation Bias creates a context in the workplace akin to “something in the water” that prevents women from reaching their full potential or progressing as fast as men.  

For those adamant that they’ve ascended to their level without facing any barriers, I’d respond, “How do you know you haven’t encountered any barriers? How much further on could you be right now? It sounds pessimistic, but the evidence suggests that women will have faced obstacles they are not always even aware of.”  

Women often need to realise organisations hold them to a higher standard than men. They also may have unknowingly faced other types of bias like Benevolent Bias, for example, where a manager makes decisions on their behalf and, whilst intending to be kind, takes away their ability to make their own decision.  

For the DEI Experts 

If you’d like to explore more research on the persisting, but discreet discrimination women face in the workplace, consider diving into ECC’s Research and Knowledge Base. You may find the Essential Research section particularly useful, where we have summarised several cutting-edge pieces of research.  

Myth 5: Trickle down diversity works 

Whilst there’s evidence to back that diversity fuels more diversity, it’s critical to note that it’s not a given that diversity in leadership positions trickles down. As a member of an underrepresented group, a few things can happen when an individual gets to the top. First, they are visible because they stand out compared to the ‘majority’ of their peers, who are most likely male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, from higher socio-economic backgrounds and white. And the effort to fit in whilst standing out can sometimes result in ingroup derogation: holding members of their underrepresented group to higher standards and criticising them more harshly than others.  

An example is when I once presented to a group of partners in a law firm about the importance of moving to a more flexible working approach. Of the 12 partners in the room, only 2 were women and were vocal about the impossibility of flexibility. The implication was that as they had made it to partner as parents, so should others be able to without “relaxing standards”.  

It’s also important to note that not every woman at the top will support gender initiatives because they might not want to remind others of their underrepresented identity characteristics—this is the paradox of trying to fit in while you stand out. We also know that DEI initiatives are often more successfully presented in leadership teams by someone from the majority group, i.e. the ingroup.  

For the DEI Experts 

Refrain from relying too heavily on support from individuals on a leadership, executive or board team from underrepresented groups for your initiatives. Help may not be forthcoming, whether because of their personal beliefs or challenges or because they want to avoid feeling burdened with solving problems they did not create. Instead, establish sponsorship for your initiatives as you would for other change programmes across a broad set of leaders.