Women Were Not Made to Walk on Stilts

Published in HRDirector Issue 177, written by Emily Thornton of AchieveForum

I would feel pretty confident of winning a wager that every woman has experienced some form of bias in favour of a male colleague in her career. The burning questions are ‘why’ and ‘how’? We have laws to stop discrimination on the basis of gender, we have HR policies, procedures and practices and there’s mandatory training to make the issues very clear.

The excruciatingly slow-moving dial of the 2019 gender pay gap reports, which saw a negligible 0.1 percent average improvement, is a stark reminder that the face of global business continues to be overwhelmingly male. This is despite countless studies telling us that ‘diversity of thought’ breeds innovation, growth and profitability, all of which are high on the strategic agenda. So, how can we move beyond compliance and translate our intentions of an equitable culture into reality? Organisational policies are often full of good intentions such as; ‘we treat everyone equally’ and ‘it’s about talent, not gender’. This, however, pre-supposes that we truly know what it takes to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed, and are aware when we’re not doing so. The playing field is not as level as we would like to believe. The truth is that inclusive behaviours are often lacking, as we encounter ‘second generation gender bias’.

A study by Dana Kanze, doctoral fellow at Columbia Business School, explored sources of inequality in entrepreneurship funding. Kanze revealed an implicit bias whereby investors tended to ask men ‘promotion’ focused questions (giving them an opportunity to discuss their plans for growth), while the women were asked ‘prevention’ focused questions (pushing them to focus on risk management). Why does this matter? Because replies to ‘promotion’ focused questions yielded seven times more investment for the male entrepreneurs who were asked them. Translating this into everyday leadership interactions, let’s compare two common performance management questions: What two-to-three things will you focus on to help you grow and develop, and what two-to-three things will you focus on to make sure you meet your goals? Both questions are valid but could produce very different outcomes. The first is essentially a ‘prevention’ focused question, encouraging a focus on safety and responsibility.

The second is considered a ‘promotion’ focused question, which encourages advancement and achievement. This is one example of how subtleties, such as the language we use, can have a significant impact on culture.

Gender balance has to be everyone’s job – leaders and employees alike – and HR and L&D are best placed to lead the way, by engaging and empowering everyone to own the issue and work towards change. We can make significant progress if we acknowledge that inclusivity allows us all to win. We can discover ways to transform work, through listening to all voices and being genuinely open to change. It’s important to focus on the culture, not the individual, and consider this from a structural perspective – not just how to help one individual, but the next person and the next. Change needs to be replicated and sustained, in order to develop an inclusive culture, and set clear goals, be transparent, and taking a holistic approach to gender balance. Inclusion needs to be woven through the strategic agenda. Short-term targets can create energy and some gain but gender parity is not a standalone issue. There’s no quick or simple answer to how to close the gender pay gap and build a gender balanced culture. If anything, we’re only just starting to realise the amount of work there is still to do. What is important to remember is that this is not just your job, or mine, everyone has a role to play. We must endeavor to learn from each other and look beyond our own companies, sectors and geographies to create new inclusive ways of leading in the digital age, thereby widening the talent pool, driving success and growing the economy

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