Bridging the Gender Gap in the Workplace: Reimagining Community Spaces
Picture this: a bustling office filled with employees typing away at their desks, all working towards a common goal. But in the midst of this productivity, a deafening silence surrounds a critical issue – gender dynamics at the workplace.
Workplaces have traditionally been spaces where employees come together to accomplish tasks, meet deadlines, and achieve organisational goals. While these are undoubtedly important aspects of work life, fostering a sense of community and providing a platform for discussing topics that are sensitive like microaggressions, sexual harassment, gender bias and stereotypes is equally crucial in today’s rapidly evolving work environments. However, despite the growing awareness of these issues, there seems to be a notable void of informal community spaces within organisations where employees can openly discuss and deliberate on resolving challenges arising from gender dynamics.
The absence of designated spaces for discussing gender dynamics can perpetuate a sense of isolation among employees who are grappling with these issues. Gender-related challenges, such as gender bias, microaggressions, sexual harassment and unequal pay, etc. can take a toll on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. This void poses a significant challenge in the journey towards creating inclusive workplaces.
It’s the void that very few talk about, and it’s time to shine a light on why organisations desperately need community spaces to address this unspoken challenge. Through Women at Work’s research and in-depth KIIs covering 70+ social impact organisations, it was deduced that having a community space within the organisation can provide a support system, allowing employees to share their experiences, seek advice, and know that they are not alone in their struggles.
According to Harvard Business Review, in a survey conducted with over 1,500 women professionals, participants reported that when employees feel a sense of belongingness at the workplace, 58% were more likely to flourish at work, 55% more engaged and 66% more likely to stay with their organisation. Additionally, Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report highlights that ‘belonging’ is one of the primary challenges that organisations face. As per their findings, 73% of participants stated that a sense of belonging promotes organisation’s success and 93% agreed that it enhances organisation’s performance.
Why are there fewer community spaces at the workplace?
Workplaces tend to overlook the importance of informal community spaces because of a lack of awareness among other factors. However, these spaces hold significant potential for fostering strong human connections and boosting employee morale and contentment.
A factor contributing to the void of community spaces for gender discussions is the lack of representation and diversity at the leadership level in many organisations. Women at Work’s research highlighted that women-led organisations exhibited a stronger tendency towards inclusive and community-based approaches in their organisational culture. However, when women’s voices and perspectives are absent from decision-making positions, it can lead to a lack of understanding and support for gender-related issues. When decision-makers are predominantly from one gender, it can be challenging to push for such initiatives that promote inclusivity. This lack of representation often results in a disregard for the need for gender-focused community spaces, as those in power may not fully comprehend the importance of these discussions.
Moreover, some organisations may shy away from creating these spaces due to concerns about potential conflicts or criticism that can crop up. Gender dynamics can be a sensitive topic, and discussions may lead to disagreements or uncomfortable conversations. However, avoiding these discussions only perpetuates the problems, allowing them to fester beneath the surface and for brewing employee discontent. It is essential for organisations to recognise that discomfort is a necessary step towards growth and change.
One of the reasons for the lack of community spaces for gender discussions is the prevailing capitalist culture that often prioritises productivity over everything else. In such environments, time spent on informal conversations is viewed as unproductive, which is far from true. Consequently, organisations may hesitate to facilitate discussions about gender dynamics at the workplace. This can create a culture of silence, making it difficult for employees to voice their concerns or seek support from their colleagues.
What is the way forward?
To address this void, organisations must take proactive steps to create community spaces for gender discussions. Here are some strategies that can help bridge the gap:
1. Encourage the formation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Employee Resource Groups, led by employees on a voluntary basis, strive to cultivate a diverse, inclusive work environment that aligns with the organisation’s mission and goals. These groups can provide a safe and supportive space for employees to share their experiences, discuss challenges, and propose solutions. Through Women at Work’s research, it was deduced that exchange of lived experiences and discussion around gender sensitivity in the workplace have proven to be beneficial for organisations’ growth. For instance, our research revealed that it was easier for small organisations (lesser than 60 employees) to provide spaces to employees for sharing personal information willingly without any pressure, which helped build trust within the team. While this can take the form of informal groups in small organisations, larger organisations having institutionalised structures can embed this as part of their DEIB councils or organisational development programs.
2. Mentorship and Allyship Programs: A workplace community can also foster allyship and mentorship by creating a supportive environment where employees can connect and learn from one another. Allies offer support, understanding, and advocacy for colleagues facing discrimination or challenges. Mentorship relationships often naturally form within these communities, enabling experienced individuals to guide and empower their peers. Inclusivity and collaboration are central to this dynamic, as employees share experiences, knowledge, and resources. Ultimately, a strong workplace community not only enhances a sense of belonging but also promotes equity and personal growth through allyship and mentorship opportunities. Implementing mentorship programs that pair employees of different genders also foster mutual understanding and support. Allyship programs can encourage employees to be advocates for gender diversity within the organisation. Further, curating team building exercises exposing people to themes of gender inclusion and sensitivity can also facilitate allyship within organisations. (At Women at Work, allyship and mentorship are themes we are having interesting deliberations on, but more about that in our upcoming blogs!)
3. Training and Workshops: Our research also showed that offering regular training sessions and workshops focusing on gender dynamics, unconscious bias, and inclusive leadership as part of organisational development or learning and development programs can be effective modes to systemically challenge deep-rooted societal and systemic patriarchal norms, which also plague workplace communities. By providing education and awareness, these initiatives enable employees to recognize and eliminate internalised, unconscious biases, thus creating a safe working space for women within the organisation. Additionally, they foster open dialogue and feedback mechanisms, allowing employees to become collective advocates for gender equality and contribute to a more inclusive, equitable and happier work environment.
4. Diverse Leadership: In the quest to cultivate organic workplace communities, diversity plays a crucial role. One significant aspect is fostering diversity at all levels of the organisation, including leadership positions. A diverse leadership team is more inclined to prioritise and support initiatives geared toward creating inclusive and organic spaces. This was reinforced by our landscaping study, which underscored the importance of individuals with lived experiences in promoting sensitivity. Those who have experienced specific challenges firsthand are better equipped to facilitate and educate others, making it essential to actively encourage their induction into roles within that spectrum. By embracing diverse leadership, we further enhance the authenticity and inclusivity of our workplace communities.
Workplace communities are at the heart of employee engagement because peer relationships and camaraderie improve employee retention. According to a study by Workforce, 62% of employees who have 1-5 friends at the workplace are less likely to switch jobs, and this figure increases to 70% when they have 6-25 friends. Further, research by Gallup also highlights that when women have friends at the workplace, 63% are more than twice as likely to be engaged in their job.
However, the void of community spaces and lack of open dialogue for discussing gender dynamics at the workplace is a challenge that hinders progress towards more inclusive and equitable organisations, and fostering allyship within workplaces. To address this gap, organisations should begin to recognise the importance of these discussions and take proactive steps to create safe and supportive spaces for their employees where gender dynamics can be discussed, understood, and ultimately transformed for the better.