Study Finds Women Face Workplace Challenges

July 8, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — What do women in the workplace need to do to get to the top?

Take risks, be assertive, ask for a promotion, work hard, network — and develop sports knowledge.

Those are the responses of women who took part in a survey for the Women’s Resource Center, which recently released a study called “The Status of Women in the Workplace.”

“The problem we saw with these responses was that women saw things that they had to do to reach the top matching with what they resented having to do to get to the top,” said Deb Bloom, the center’s business and community liaison. “It was for these reasons that the solutions and suggested strategies were necessary.”

The Women’s Resource Center survey resulted from the fact that when the center began looking for data on women in the workplace, it couldn’t find any.

The resulting study identified mentoring, networking and professional development as key to workplace advancement for women.

“With the workplace initiative we have been working to promote the recruitment, retention and advancement of women in the workplace. We had anecdotes and small facts from the community but no real research, so we set out to gather it and figured it could serve as a baseline for our study,” said Bloom.

It was then that the Women’s Resource Center contacted the Grand Valley State University Community Research Center to complete the study. Bloom worked closely with the Community Research Center and provided an advisory council to collectively decide what was to be gained from the survey, what was to be accomplished through focus groups and who to target.

Candidates were collected from the public sector, private sector and nonprofit sector. The survey was mailed to human resource centers within Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties and completed during November and December of 2001. Eight focus groups were then formed, a total of 68 people made up of women, executives, managers, board members and women of color. Bloom said the Women’s Resource Center wanted to get a view of women in the workplace and in both upper and middle management positions.

“We also wanted to ask women of color what barriers they face as far as advancement,” added Bloom. “All of that really added to the study, to get more into the perceptions as well as to get people talking about barriers, strategies and solutions.”

The study is available at the Women’s Resource Center, on its Web site, www.grwrc.org, and on the Community Research Center’s Web site, www.gvsu.edu/philanthropy/cri.

“What the study did was affirm the workplace initiative that more does need to be done to advance women in the workplace in West Michigan,” stated Bloom. “It really affirmed a lot of the anecdotes and the things that people were telling us, and now we have the stats to back that up. And I think what was also really helpful were the solutions that were identified in the focus groups, and that gave us something to work from as far as what we want to work toward for training in the initiative.”

The survey included women in health care/pharmaceutical, financial services/insurance, services, retail/wholesale and manufacturing industries. The questionnaire covered employee distribution information, including proportion of women at executive and management levels, number of women as new hires, number of women promoted within specific job categories, work life benefits, benefits and policies, training and advancement, and exemplary programs.

What the Women’s Resource Center and GVSU found was that most groups were in agreement when it came to what the problems were and what was needed to solve them. A few things mentioned that could help workplace advancement were communication, leadership and people skills, proven track record, experience both within the company and in the broader field, problem-solving skills, being a team player, broad knowledge base, being able to converse on all subjects, and technological and financial knowledge.

However, it also surfaced that in order for women to advance there were unspoken or assumed requirements including having the right “fit,” or being able to think like a man, being able to network or have access to the “good old boys club,” as well as having a global understanding of the entire organization.

Another problem area was the fact that training and advancement programs don’t exist in a lot of companies. Focus groups identified areas of importance and training programs they would like to see, including sexual harassment training, informal mentoring programs, leadership development programs and diversity training.

Participants in the focus groups listed mentoring, networking and professional development as the top three resources that had helped them advance in their own careers.

Recently the survey results and focus group research findings have been categorized and put together in a best practices manual. It’s a resource for employers that gives examples of women in leadership positions in the workplace and also examples of best practices in the workplace, locally.

“This is really a good tool because it will give other businesses the opportunity to see local examples of people who are doing things right. What it gives is, instead of seeing these examples in a big Fortune 500 company in another state, we give local employers who have successfully implemented the plan in the workplace,” said Bloom. “In that sense it will also be a users guide where businesses who are intrigued can call up the business with the best practice.”

The Women’s Resource Center also has begun to host roundtable discussions in the community to focus on bringing employers together to address specific topics or issues.

“These are all great ideas and it is so important to implement work/life benefits and the advancement of women in the workplace — but it needs to be done correctly,” said Bloom. “This research gives employers a sense of what is really out there and how to change things. But it needs to be endorsed from the top down in order to make it work.”           

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