What’s Stopping Us From Picturing Gender Equity?

I’VE BEEN READING Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own, a book I confess I should have read long before now. Published in 1929, the essays argue that women need economic power before they will be as represented in the ranks of published authors as men. Nearly a century later, women in all fields are still lagging behind men in economic power – and equitable representation in powerful positions.

Gender EquityGender inequity – from representation in writing or in other professions, on company boards or in senior leadership positions, in compensation – remains maddeningly difficult to understand. Whether you accept the “lean in” approach of Sheryl Sandberg or the “structural changes are necessary” stance of Anne Marie Slaughter – or stand, as I do, somewhere in between – women still have a long way to go in attaining equity in practically any workplace or profession anywhere in the world.

One way to assess gender equity is to look at “proportional representation”, the number of women and men in key roles, departments and levels, as compared to the rest of the employee population and the workforce at large. In small organizations, this balance – or its lack – can be obvious. You can see it: the workforce is small, the pay structures defined, the succession pipeline transparent. But as organizations grow and become complex – decentralized across locations, with full-time, flex-time and contract workforces, multiple pay programs and pipelines – actually seeing the “big picture” becomes difficult. So how can a large, complicated organization picture its own gender makeup, how can it visualize – and begin to change – its trajectory?

Human Resources, the field that I come from, and its cousin, Diversity & Inclusion, are rife with tools to report, record and tabulate a wide range of information, gender included. But the systems we use – applicant tracking, compensation, development, succession, administrative – generally don’t talk to each other, and when they do they rarely produce information in a format that is compelling and that spurs action. While there’s lots of data, it’s all but impossible to see the big picture.

With increasing urgency, Human Resources and Diversity & Inclusion are being asked to set gender goals, monitor progress and measure results – in ways that “move the needle” and that can be used to tell stories about the company to potential employees. The data to do this may exist somewhere in the company but not in a form that fosters insight. It is too complicated, spread across too many places, the goals sound fuzzy, the measurements look soft and none of it is tied to business results

Is there a better way? How can gender equity – and gender inequity – be understood in ways that motivate organizations to behave differently?

???????????????????????????????I’ve recently become acquainted with UK-based Data Morphosis, and in particular with its Gender Gap tool. Gender Gap takes a company’s own data and translates it into a visually interesting and easily dissectible snapshot of equity across many dimensions: pay, promotion, performance, location, tenure, identity group, business unit, just about any way a company wants to view it. My favorite part of this tool is its modeling capability, an aspect that allows you to plug in a goal and see what specific levels of change would be required to achieve it. Suddenly, you can see whether well-intended aims are realistic – or not. You know before you commit to specific targets whether they are realistic – and exactly what has to happen to achieve them. And you’re able to measure your progress along the way.

Gender Gap offers a great way for an organization to picture where it stands in terms of gender equity – to make what was “invisible” swiftly and starkly visible. That’s what great writers like Virginia Wolfe do: they shine a light on what was dark, making what was unclear, clear.

But it isn’t enough to describe the present in a compelling way. An organization that wants to attain gender equity must have the fundamentals in place: an inclusive culture, gender-blind pay programs, access to key operational roles for both men and women, a board that values diversity at all levels, a multi-source recruiting strategy, sincere work-life integration support. Along with the data, these are the primary colors that paint the gender equity picture. Without them, our workplaces lack the vibrant hues – and rich rewards – that diversity and true equity can bring.

If she were writing today, what would Virginia Wolfe say remains to be done to empower women in the workforce?

To participate in the discussion, or to learn more, please go to: Seeing Critical Dimensions of Your Workforce: What Decisions do you Need to Make Now?


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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