Pay gaps are not the only way organisations are failing women.


Organisations are failing women – so much more than just pay.

Gender discrimination is alive and well in boardrooms, operating rooms, universities, and conference rooms.  The latest data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency — based on more than four million employees across Australia between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021 — shows that women, on average, earned almost $26,000 less than men.

There are studies showing that women are penalised for trying to negotiate a pay rise. (Doesn’t sound too psychologically safe does it?). I was recently advised of a woman in a large multi-national professional services firm who was promised equity if she could prove “valuable to the company”. After establishing a multi-million dollar services business for the organisation they promoted a “mate” who worked under her and advised her that she would not be suitable for “equity partnership but she was welcome to stay under her “new” boss”. 

One 2018 study, published by researchers from London’s City University’s Cass Business School and the University of Warwick — which looked at 4,600 randomly selected employees across 800 workplaces in Australia in 2014 — found that, while women ask just as often as men, women are less likely to get what they ask for when it comes to a pay rise. 

During International Women’s Day I was disappointed to have the airwaves blasted with the topic of gender pay gaps. While I appreciate all the work being done by advocates – the gender pay gap is just another symptom of toxic cultures that have gone unchecked for too long.  Let’s spend more time advocating for businesses to “change” the cultures to attract and retain women and treat them with respect. 

Let’s have government bodies check the businesses and associations for their transparency of culture, psychological safety, and gender gaps before awarding them government contracts, subsidies, and jobs. 

Workplace culture has a profound effect on team productivity, not to mention employees’ day-to-day sense of wellbeing; it’s long been a key factor in recruiting and retaining talent.

A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that nearly half of employees who experienced incivility in the workplace reduced their effort and made a conscious choice to spend less time at work.

Women also were much more likely to describe management and senior executives as bullying, rude, disrespectful, acting inappropriately, and racist.” Donald Sull and Charlie Sull – Analysis of Glassdoor reviews.

 MIT Sloan researchers Donald SullCharlie Sull, “a toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover”.

Symptom of toxic cultures?

According to the most recent “Women in the Workplace”Corporate culture a toxic experience for women resulting in the "great breakup" report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, the gap between men and women leaving their jobs is the largest it has been since the report was first published eight years ago.1 For every female director who is promoted, two women at the same level of seniority choose to quit. The exodus of female leaders, which has been dubbed the Great Breakup, is attributable in part to the persistent gap in pay between men and women.

Unequal compensation remains a critical pain point for many women, but corporate culture can exert an even more profound influence on how they experience the workplace. According to Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.Org and a coauthor of the report, women are leaving companies that fail to deliver on “the cultural elements of work that are critically important to them.”2

Women spoke more negatively than men about most elements of culture, including work-life balance and collaboration. The largest gap between the genders, however, is for toxic culture, which we define as a workplace culture that is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, or abusive.

Toxic culture is not only an outlier in terms of the sentiment gap between women and men; it also imposes high costs on organisations and individuals. In a 2021 People Plus Culture study, we found that a toxic culture was 10 times more powerful than compensation in predicting attrition during the first six months of people onboarding and the number one reason for people leaving jobs in the phase dubbed “the great resignation”.

Toxicity affects employees on a deeper emotional level than most other elements of the employee experience impacting on the ability to connect or belong in the workplace, socially connect and thrive. It has greater and longer-term implications on mental health and well-being.  Under the new Australian WHS and Antidiscrimination laws employers, owners, managers and directors can find themselves in a lot of trouble if found to be complicit or ignoring psycho-social hazards in the workplace. 

Gender differences in cultural toxicity

Analysing reviews through Glassdoor, Culture X founders – Charlie and Donald Sull reviewed 600,000 comments between 2020 and 2021 and found that women are 41% more likely to experience toxic workplace culture than men.Toxic culture experiences - the difference between men and women - review of glassdoor reviews

Women speak more negatively about exclusion that may or may not be linked to an individual’s identity, including leaders who are unfair or play favorites, or a workplace environment of “mates/boys club” or unfairness. 

The second-largest sentiment gap relates to whether women feel disrespected by managers. 

Many of the words and phrases that women used more frequently described a range of mistreatment, including microaggressions, gaslighting, and unfair hiring and promotion decisions, as well as outright misogyny, sexism, and sexual harassment. Women also were much more likely to describe management and senior executives as bullying, rude, disrespectful, acting inappropriately, and racist.

Women and men discussed one element of toxic culture — unethical behavior — with roughly the same frequency. The possible reason for the lack of a gap would most likely be due to power imbalances in the workplace.

The other four elements of toxicity are all forms of employee mistreatment, where managers or colleagues hurt other employees who may lack the power to challenge this behavior. To the extent that women are denied power in organisations, they are more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of these toxic behaviors than men.

Unethical behavior, in many cases, is more about flouting the rules than mistreating less-powerful colleagues. When employees or managers evade regulatory requirements, company rules, or ethical guidelines, their behavior — while toxic — is not necessarily directed at other individuals the same way abusive management or disrespect are perceived. This might explain why women and men mentioned unethical behavior at more similar rates.


Gaps by Industry

On average, a higher percentage of male employees in an occupation is associated with a slightly larger gender gap in toxic culture. Some of the largest gender gaps are seen in fields with a high percentage of male employees, including electrical engineering, the military, and automotive repair.

Fourteen of the 16 occupations with the smallest gaps are jobs with a high percentage of female employees, including child care, psychology, social work, and nursing. Among roles with the largest toxic culture gender gaps, only three — eye care professionals, nonphysician medical practitioners, and models — are held by a larger proportion of women than men. When women dominate an occupation, in other words, the toxic culture gap shrinks dramatically

The gap between how frequently women and men experience toxic culture also varies by industry.4 The four sectors with the largest toxic culture gender gaps were retail, transportation, investment services, and restaurants. Three of those sectors employ a high percentage of hourly workers, including retail representatives, drivers, and food service employees, which highlights the challenges women face with toxicity in blue-collar professions.

Investment services (including brokerages, venture capital, private equity, investment banking, and asset management) stand out among white-collar industries for the size of the gap between men and women experiencing toxic culture. 

People Plus Culture

In our studies with psychological safety studies with organisations and boards we have found a number of organisations who are bravely trying to do different things to improve their cultures. Some of their successes have been by implementing the following:
1.  Reviewing leadership competency frameworks to ensure that they have a focus on “essential human skills” erroneously referred to as “soft skills”.
2. Focus on building diversity by working with multicultural professional associations to recruit and build cultural awareness
3. Focus on inclusion and belonging by creating social clubs at work that might be about culture, charity, religion, food, hobbies
4. Increased training on conversational skills, emotional intelligence and social intelligence
5. Cultural and neuro-diverse mapping to understand our individual strengths and share and learn from each other
6. Eliminating internal cultural and engagement surveys and replacing with team psychological safety and organisational resilience
7. Working on ensuring trust and respect are valued and demonstrated at all levels of the organisation
8. Workplace design changes to encourage workers to come into work 3 days per week and provide an environment that is suitable to their work
9. Looking at people with the right “essential skills” and identifying new opportunities and training across the business.
Toxicity is often a result of lack of accountability, unclear direction and poor leadership “essential skills”. In some cases toxicity can be found in particular teams;  or in the higher leadership levels whereby direct managers often buffer frontline teams to keep them “safe” from the level of toxicity coming from the top.  Importantly, with concentrated and tailored efforts (based and founded on evidence and direct interventions) actions can actually have quicker results. However, for many organisations significant “change” is required to mitigate and eliminate established norms and poor behaviour. 
Luckily, in Australia with new WHS and Anti-discrimination laws, compliance and risk is a great motivator for change. Under these new legal amendments, business owners, directors and managers are directly responsible for ensuring a positive workplace free of bullying and harassment. 





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