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How two women in a male-dominated field found their voice

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Many companies with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives highlight the importance of embracing workers’ differences. But what about the employers who seek to treat every worker the same?

María García Osés, head of business control for Garnica, has worked with the wood supplier for almost four years now; she works out of its Spanish headquarters. “It’s a company where I feel like there’s no differences between women and men,” she said. “You just evolve based on your performance and your skills, from the very beginning.” 

And it happens naturally, she said, because the focus is on culture, not quotas. “It’s not like you’re convincing or you’re forcing anything,” she said. “If you have great people, great performers, this is how they evolve.”

She added: “I think it’s important that you’re not trying to say, ‘You need to put in this position X number of women, so we know that 40% of the management positions are handled by women.” Garnica, she said, didn’t achieve its workplace environment by establishing representation goal posts. 

So how do inclusion and equity happen at Garnica? 

How mentorship can take women to the next level  

Research suggests that women, especially women of color, can benefit from targeted learning and development initiatives. Compared to 73% of men, only 56% of women have access to upskilling opportunities, a DeVry University report suggested. The September 2023 report also highlighted a gap between employer intentions and follow-through regarding worker training.

Similarly, a DDI report this month argued that women are held back from leadership due to a lack of career development opportunities.

García Osés told HR Dive she initially hesitant about a program for women in leadership. Despite it being an internationally attended and revered program, she didn’t know how to feel about it being specifically geared toward women. 

María García Osés, Head of Business Control for Garnica

Permission granted by Garnica

 

“I didn’t see it as a positive thing, because I felt it’s better to get that mix-up [of genders],” she said. But through the program, she learned that women typically have some skills that come naturally and some that need improvement “solely based on our experience and the role we usually have in society.” 

Part of this experience involved embracing “soft skills” — and gaining self-confidence through that realization. “You can put that on the table: the way that we organize ourselves, the way that we plan, how we solve conflicts,” she said. “Then we can play a very important role.”

By the time she completed the program, García Osés found its structure helpful. “They made me aware of how strong I was in some things that I took for granted,” she said. She was then able to reframe those strengths in her work at Garnica. “You are more empowered, yes, because you believe more in yourself,” she reflected. 

L&D is only one piece of the puzzle

Working at a company that “gives you the voice and the visibility” on top of L&D opportunities helps, García Osés said. She said respect from colleagues is compounded by “being the best version of yourself, which is something that I’ve never seen in any other place, to be honest.”

But setting women up for success, particularly in male-dominated fields, doesn’t stop at learning and development. Culture should be addressed as well, HR experts have said.

As many studies highlight, workplaces are rife with microaggressions for workers with marginalized identities. For many women, this can look like being spoken over, or colleagues assuming they are more junior. Often, women report they’re afraid to bring up their ideas at work or speak up in meetings. 

Sometimes, the HR solution isn’t sending a worker away for a learning and development program, but educating managers on how to be good allies.

Freya Hannah, the Canadian representative for Garnica, gave credit to her boss David Smith, president of Garnica’s North American Division, for empowering her.

“As a Canadian — probably as a woman, I don’t really know — but I have an inclination to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Like almost ‘apologize’ for my idea, and even kind of ‘sneak up’ to him to be like, ‘I kind of have an idea.’”

A headshot of Freya Hannah, Canadian Representative for Garnica

Permission granted by Garnica

 

Smith told her that he didn’t want that, Hannah recalled; instead, she remembered him saying,If you have an idea, put your feet on the ground. And look me right in the eye and say, ‘I have an idea. And this is why I think it’s going to work and this is what I’m gonna do.’”

“He says ‘Freya, I know you break things. Everybody knows you break things. You’re tough. You’re out there.’ He says, ‘All I want you to know is that you think about something before you break. That’s it,’” she said. As long as she could explain why she wanted to disrupt the status quo, he would understand and have her back.

“That is something I have never experienced,” she said.

How gender factors into the leadership pipeline

Across industries and levels, it can be difficult for women to advance in their careers. Notably, representation of women in the C-suite has increased from 17% to 28%, from 2015 to 2023, according to Lean In’s annual Women in the Workplace report. More women are VP and SVPs as well.

“These hard-earned gains are encouraging but fragile,” researchers said. “Progress is slower for women at the manager and director levels, creating a weak middle in the pipeline and impacting the majority of women in corporate America.”

The disparities are greater for women of color: Where 1 in 4 C-suite leaders are women, 1 in 16 are women of color.

This “broken rung” of career progression holds women back even more than the glass ceiling, Lean In suggested. “This is that first critical step up, from entry-level to manager, and we find that it’s the biggest obstacle that women face on the path to senior leadership,” Caroline Fairchild, editor-in-chief and VP of Education at Lean In, told HR Dive.

The gender split at the managerial level is 60/40, in men’s favor. Moreover, for every 100 men promoted to manager, 54 Black women are promoted to manager. (The promotion rate for Black women was higher in 2020 and 2021, but has since dropped to below 2019 levels.)

“There’s a lot of outdated thinking that often points to reasons for why women aren’t getting promoted at the same rates as their men peers,” Fairchild said, pointing to myths about women not asking for promotions at the same rates as men or higher attrition overall.

“But neither is true. Women at the entry and manager levels are asking for promotions as often as men do — and women at these levels are no more likely to leave their companies. So that really points to one main driver of the broken rung,” Fairchild said. “And it’s bias.”

How does bias factor into the leadership talent pipeline? “Where men are promoted based on potential, women tend to be promoted based on previous accomplishments. Bias is fueling these numbers,” Fairchild said, saying they should be a call-to-action for senior leaders “to not only identify the broken rung within their ranks but also look for solutions to solve it.”

A solution Fairchild offered is to send out bias reminders before rounds of hiring and general performance reviews.

“Research shows that anti-bias training and awareness really can wear off over time. So during those like cyclical moments during the calendar year — when performance reviews are up or you might be hiring more —  remind folks. Give them access to tools on the biases and what that they might be,” she said.

Celebrating what women bring to the table

Employers can champion women in male-dominated industries, such as STEM, construction and manufacturing, Fairchild said, by addressing that “broken rung” of the career ladder.

Talent pipelines may need a look, too. “I encourage women all the time to come into this industry,” Hannah said. “The forestry industry is a lot of fun.”

Previously, she worked in aeromedical evacuation, dealing with medical repatriations: “White collar, very high stress all the time. And I always say that I love this industry, because nobody’s dying. They just don’t get their kitchen by Christmas, maybe,” she said. 

Women can be especially valuable in a male-dominated industry like manufacturing, she said. Due to the way people are socialized based on gender, their communication styles may end up being different. “I do think that there is an advantage, sometimes, to have women have these relationships,” she said, noting that different people “bring different things to the table.”

And leave it to a woman in wood supply to know what women can bring to a table.

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