Many businesses will no doubt be celebrating International Women’s Day—and indeed, there is much to celebrate.
The proportion of women in board roles in Britain’s biggest listed companies has risen above 40% for the first time, the EU has agreed that companies will face mandatory quotas to ensure women have at least 40% of seats on corporate boards, and female career progression in America is on the up—albeit marginally.
Yet there are still a lot of adversities that women face in the workplace that go unscrutinized to this day—like the fact that just as female leaders are stepping into the c-suite, they’re likely silently struggling with menopause symptoms.
Fortune asked female CEOs to reveal the experiences, phrases, and practices that they want gone from the business world pronto. And the responses, from gaslighting to being unnecessarily labeled as a “female founder” in the same vein as men are simply described by their non-gendered job title, are eye-opening.
The “missing stair”
Every worker knows too well the “missing stair” in their team—it’s that offending person who newcomers are warned about in hushed words during their first week.
“In my career, and in my personal life, I have been warned more than once about someone like this,” says Rachael Greaves, CEO of the compliance company Castlepoint Systems. “Someone who was still allowed to keep their job, and keep their position of authority, despite their repeated boundary-crossing and predatory behavior.”
Instead of warning your new hires to “watch out for him”, she thinks leaders should instead stop and think about whether their workers should actually “have to watch their step every single day”.
Cindy Gallop, CEO and founder of the erotic site Make Love Not Porn, echoes that problematic people should be eradicated from the business world altogether so that others can thrive.
“I want to see the opposite of diversity and inclusion. Because every company and industry is making the same mistake,” she says. “It’s not about bringing diversity and inclusion in. It’s about kicking the sexists, misogynists, racists, ableists, ageists, homophobes, and transphobes out.”
One of the silver linings of the pandemic was the advancement of remote working. Decades worth of change took place in a matter of months, with the percentage of Americans working from home increasing from 5% pre-pandemic to 60% by spring 2020.
But now, some employers want to undo the progress made with return-to-the-office mandates and flexible policies which are just lip service.
“These mandates disproportionately disadvantage mothers, other primary caregivers and whoever picks up the brunt of responsibility for keeping the household running smoothly (which statistically today still falls mostly to women),” warns Kelly Schmitt, CEO of Benevity, a certified B Corporation corporate social responsibility software provider.
Companies that are serious about diversity and inclusion, “need to be serious about creating the conditions in which both men and women can be successful,” she adds.
While other leaders want to bid prescribed working hours goodbye, Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO of Flexa Careers, is calling out “fake flexibility”.
For example, firms that offer a four-day week under the guise of increasing work-life balance, yet expect workers to complete the same amount of work by working later in their evenings. Or hiring managers who advertise roles as “remote” when really, staff are expected to be in the office at least 3 days a week.
“Blame wilful ignorance or honest mistakes. Either way, “fake flexibility” does both employers and employees a disservice,” Johnson-Jones says, while adding that staff whose needs are not accommodated in practice are unable to fulfill their potential and new starters who are met with a different working environment to the one they were sold at interview won’t make for engaged team members.
“In 2023, I want to see the gaslighting of women eradicated. It’s insidious, institutionalized, and endemic in business,” says Erin Gallagher, CEO and founder of Ella For All.
More commonly, gaslighting comes in the form of NDAs, performative exit interviews, and biased performance reviews, but Gallagher thinks even that even this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is another example of gaslighting.
“Telling women to ‘Embrace Equity’ is manipulative. It’s passive. And it’s why the “progress” we’ve made over the last 300 years has been incremental at best, stagnant, and regressive at worst,” she adds.
Another example of this is expecting female workers to solve women’s issues, like the gender pay gap or inequality in the c-suite, when statistically women don’t hold the positions of power. Or making counter-productive promises to “empower” the women to apply for promotions, when the blame for the lack of female career progression in business sits firmly on the shoulders of leaders.
“Women don’t want another webinar, they want to be seen and heard, they want platforms created for them and by them which focus on the challenges they uniquely experience,” Mimi Nicklin, CEO of the global marketing agency Freedm and author of Softening the Edge, says. “We don’t need empowerment, we need true intention, empathy and a commitment to progress.”
Menstrual and fertility taboo
Unfortunately, stigma follows women throughout their career from when they’re experiencing the hormonal impact of menstruating right up to when they’re menopausal—and in between that time they’re passed up for promotion during childbearing years or not entitled to statuary leave after a miscarriage, shrouding the distressing experience with further taboo.
Women are tired of this: An overwhelming number of CEOs told Fortune that they want the bias against these natural experiences, which are synonymous with womanhood, to be eradicated from business.
“There’s a very real bias against pregnant women, and if we could eliminate that then we’d find ourselves in a much more equal workplace,” says Ana Mahony, CEO and founder of the financial wellness company Addition Wealth. “Unfortunately today, women who are pregnant are more likely to be passed up for job opportunities, viewed as less committed to their work, and less likely to get salary increases than their male counterparts.”
Meanwhile, looking back over her career spanning over four decades across male-dominated fields, from the automotive to the medical industry, Terry Weber CEO of Biote, a hormone therapy firm, asserts that most workplaces today are more inclusive than they once were. “But we still need to address the final hurdle working women of my generation are facing: menopause.”
Menopause occurs when women are most likely to move into top leadership positions, with almost 20% of the U.S. workforce affected by menopause symptoms. Yet, the stigma surrounding it means that some opt to retire early, instead of being open about their struggles.
“Our entire society needs to work to normalize menopause and allow the conversations. The burden of doing so shouldn’t be placed on working women who may fear for the impact on their work relationships or their careers,” Weber warns.
Gendered prefixes and associations
There was one resounding bugbear among the hundreds of CEOs that reached out to Fortune and that’s the unnecessary use of the word “female”.
“Personally I’d rather not be referred to as a ‘female founder’, a ‘female CEO’, or a ‘female engineer’. It’s both tiring and limiting,” Bianca Cefalo, CEO and co-founder of Space DOTS, a space materials testing company, argues. “My gender has nothing to do with what I’ve achieved. Irrespective of gender, I’m a business professional and that is all that should matter.”
“In 2023, I think we all need to stop using “female” as a qualifier for leadership positions. For years I’ve been called one of the best female CEOs in the industry but it’s not enough,” echoes Ellis McCue, CEO of Territory Foods. “I’d like to just be recognized as the best, no qualifiers.”
And the same goes for lists and awards: “Women want to be celebrated for what we’ve accomplished, not for traits inherent in who we are,” says Christine Yen, co-founder and CEO of software debugging company Honeycomb .
Instead, she insists that accolades should be non-gendered because “confining women to these lists only reinforces that they’re “different” and “other” instead of being as qualified and accomplished as any other executive, investor, or founder.”
Likewise, others CEOs shared they feel less accomplished when winning such awards because the pool of competition is much smaller and that such standalone spaces for women, including female-only events and panels, goes against the sentiment of wanting the same treatment as male leaders.
Meanwhile, the founder and president of femtech firm Elvie, Tania Boler, is calling time on gendering empathy as an inherently female trait: “We see it all the time in articles written about women in leadership roles—as if empathy is a super power unique to women,” she says, while highlighting that it’s enforcing gender stereotypes and “pigeonholing holing them as automatically more empathetic simply because they’re a woman.”
“For true equality to exist in business, we need to celebrate leaders for their skills and attributes regardless of their gender,” she adds.
Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.