Not everyone knows that I moonlight as a restaurateur, but it’s true. While by day I work in an executive position inside a small Canadian non-profit, by night (and some weekends) I support my husband running a 120-seat locally franchised family-style restaurant. I don’t always share a lot about my restaurant life, but something happened this past weekend that stood out for me. 

During breakfast service, the phone rang; I answered and had an exchange with an upset, and rather aggressive man on the other end. Our conversation went something like this: 

Customer: Hello, I’m trying to make a reservation at your location on Park Street, but no one is answering the damn phone. 

Me: I understand, however, the location on Park Street only opens at 11am and does not have a dining room or breakfast service. 

Customer: [Audible exasperated sigh] Yes, yes they do. I was there before! They definitely do! Also, why doesn’t your company list the hours properly and the phone numbers?! 

He launched into a laundry list of complaints, told me I was wrong, and interrupted me when I tried to answer his questions. I didn’t appear to be getting anywhere so after about two minutes I asked for him to hold on one moment and I called my husband over to try to chat with him instead. My husband’s conversation went something like this and lasted 10 seconds: 

Husband: Hello? How can I help you?

Customer: Hello, as I told the girl, I’m trying to make a reservation at your location on Park Street and it’s urgent. 

Husband: Sir, the Park Street location does not have a dining room.

Customer: Oh, it doesn’t? 

Husband: No, it does not. It’s a takeout location only. 

Customer: Oh, so where can I make a reservation?

I shook my head. And this, my friends, is one very tiny example of the many problems, obstacles, and inequities that women face in the workplace. In 2022, if my husband and I say exactly the same words to someone, but only he is heard, how can I believe we are truly making sustained and continued progress toward gender equity? 

Are we still progressing? Or have we fallen behind? 

Each year in March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day and those in the U.S. celebrate Women’s History Month, which is typically recognized by Canadians in October alongside International Day of the Girl. These days and months mark times where we as women often reflect on how far we’ve come and celebrate the glass ceilings we’ve shattered, and where we as a society think about how we’re challenging the status quo and working towards gender equity. 

Now I don’t know about you, but this year, International Women’s Day rang a little differently for me. I saw a plethora of inspirational posts on social media with quotes from women working inside companies, links to amazing stories about women leading organizations and making significant contributions in their fields, and even a few posts about the very real types of policy and systemic change companies are making to weed out gender bias in the workplace. And yet, despite all the positive stories and the celebratory nature of the day, I still had a difficult time donning a party hat. 

The truth is that not only does data show that women’s participation in the workforce has sharply declined over the course of the pandemic, but research also shows that we had a problem pre-pandemic too. 

Not long before COVID-19 entered our lives, women were reporting high rates of burnout, with even higher rates experienced by women of colour. Enter 2020, where lockdowns and working from home became the norm, and suddenly women were leaving the workforce at an alarming rate, with childcare and domestic work responsibilities playing a significant role. 

Despite the fact that women have been slowly and gradually evening the playing field and increasing our share within the labour market since the 1930s, the pandemic did very much take a toll and has set back progress significantly. 

Ways managers can help companies move the needle on gender equity 

If you are a leader, a manager, or a person of influence inside a company, you have a duty to help your organization make advances in terms of gender equity. No, it’s not solely the job of HR, and no, it’s not only the responsibility of the CEO – everyone has a role to play. Here are some concrete actions to think about from a manager’s perspective to continue moving the needle forward:

1 Examine workplace policies and practices and change them if needed 

Women face multiple barriers in the workplace and in some cases, they are baked into workplace policies and practices that have been alive and well for decades. While you may not personally be able to make sweeping company-wide policy changes, as a leader it is 100% your responsibility to ask questions, be aware, help your company advance, and go to bat for your employees. So, ask yourself: What does your family and medical leave policy look like? What do your hiring practices look like? How do people get measured and promoted in your workplace? Do your job postings contain gendered language? Are these policies and practices equitable and inclusive? If not, or if you don’t know, it’s probably worth digging deeper.   

Check in with your team

Meet with your team on a one-on-one basis to build trust and exchange feedback to get a better understanding of how they are doing. Try a collaborative tool like Fellow to write down notes and never forget what was said!

2 End the pay gap 

In both Canada and the US (and in many other places around the world), women still make less money than men for doing exactly the same job – and it’s such a well-known fact and widespread issue, that it’s literally not even worth me citing a source (sigh). To put it bluntly: this is unacceptable and every single hiring manager has a role to play in ensuring their direct reports are paid equally if they are doing the same job. Period. 

3 Move past “counting” and quotas and look deeper 

For quite some time now, many companies have been working avidly to get more women on teams, boards, and committees, and the strides are indeed noticeable. I applaud this important work, but I would also note that simply because your staff complement is now 50% women, the work does not stop. You are not done. Having women at the table is not enough – it is simply the first step. Now, roll up your sleeves and let the real work begin. Ask yourself some questions like: How many women on the team are in positions of leadership and influence? Are there women chairing committees within your organization? Are there any barriers in your organization preventing women from moving into management positions? Numbers are important, yes, but participation, leadership, and influence of women inside organizations is the deeper issue. 

4 Think long and hard about “flexible” work plans 

There are many conversations happening right now about “return to work” plans and what that looks like for companies and employees across the world as we begin to inch our way out of the global pandemic. Some organizations are opting for “flexible” working environments, allowing employees to continue working from home if they wish or develop some-sort of hybrid solution. While I fully support flexible work plans, and I myself continue to work from home, I encourage all managers to think long and hard about the unintended impacts of flexible environments. For example: Do you have more women on your team working at home than men? Are you giving more attention and more feedback to your employees in the office over your employees who work from home? Are your employees who work from home given equal opportunity to tackle new and exciting projects? Are you unconsciously creating a “promotion penalty” with your work-from-home employees? All these questions are worth considering as your team begins to return to work.

5 Adopt an intersectionality approach 

Over 30 years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia and UCLA and a civil rights advocate, coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways a person’s various identities overlap. Decades after the term was first used, it is now finally being understood that while working toward gender equality in the workplace is important, focusing only on women is not enough. As an example, consider this: Women make less money than men for the same work, but white women tend to make more than women of colour. How on earth is that ok? It’s not. As a manager, it is important for you to remember this: not all inequality is equal. Dive deep, ask questions, reflect, and take an intersectionality approach whenever possible.   

Parting advice

In closing, let me leave you with this final thought to ponder: In this month of March, and on days like International Women’s Day, are you celebrating women on your teams and inside your companies? Or are you actively doing the deep work to create long-term and sustained change? Because I’m here to tell you: we need both.