International Women's Day and Celebrating Success

Article by Miriam Yates, Psychologist and Senior Consultant at Within Consulting

I have a teeny tiny confession to make… I’m a giant feminist, and while I’m not afraid of people knowing, I am afraid that I might be a bad feminist.  You see, while a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion (I’ve dedicated the last 4 years – and counting – to researching gender diversity specifically), I am not particularly vocal about my research interests and findings.  I actually tend to shy away from discussion surrounding the topic within the workplace, and I find it particularly challenging finding pragmatic and outcome driven solutions to the barriers we face in the space of diversity and inclusion more broadly.  I’m not alone.  I’ve spoken with both scholars and practitioners alike, and we all agree that practical solutions are lacking, and not because there aren’t any.  There unequivocally are ways to address gender diversity (and good news, they don’t involve annihilating men everywhere – particularly exciting news for my husband!).  But, the bad news is: these barriers are addressed only with time, effort and recursive action.  

You see, if I can make a cooking analogy (so gender stereotypical), diversity and inclusion could be thought of as making a hearty vegetable soup.  If you moosh all the ingredients all together, you miss out on the unique characteristics of the vegetables (e.g., the crunchy celery, the butter-soft potatoes, etc).  But, if you don’t properly cook everything and add the right herbs and spices, you end up with a tasteless-watery broth.  You have to take your time, starting with the right foundations (e.g., stock) and recalibrating the herbs and spices as you go.  The trick here is about time and effort, trying some flavours, seeing what works together and constantly revising to improve.  I like to think of the foundations of the soup (e.g., the stock), as representative of the organisational structures and processes that support diversity inclusion (e.g., a diversity strategy, or code of conduct, etc), and the herbs and spices as the ongoing action (e.g., revision of policies, SWOT analyses of current diversity and inclusion action-planning, etc.) we can take to improve the taste (e.g., diversity and inclusion climate).

Now, this is most certainly over-simplifying things and its clear that D&I is a complex space to work within, but perhaps breaking challenges into more manageable ‘bite-sized’ pieces is the key and that’s certainly what I’ve found within my research.  

My research interests to date have focused on gender within professional networks in the Australian Mining Industry, to more recently exploring (the very elusive concept of) power within work relationships.  Researchers before me show that ‘doing gender’ is endemic to organisation, with little change over the past 30 years in our stereotypical beliefs about the characteristics of men and women.  In many ways, these beliefs can be institutionalised throughout the employee lifecycle.  From the ways in which we recruit and select, to the way we on-board new hires, the way we assess and develop performance, and the ways we interact within the workplace are all activities that involve ‘doing gender’.  Some might even expand upon this to suggest that all of these activities broadly involve ‘doing diversity and inclusion’.

Now, I’ll bet there are sceptics out there reading this.  Great!  Hopefully you’re starting to challenge some of my statements – and rightly so.  But let me tell you a little bit about what the research finds to kick-off some of your thinking on the topic … and you’ll have to forgive me – I might simply focus on my area of expertise (i.e., gender), however feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more about other areas of diversity and I’ll do my best to support your exploration of the research here…

We know that discrimination is not overt as it might’ve been in the past, this is partially attributable to increased legislation mandating again discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, intersex status, gender identification and sexual orientation.  However, what we now find is that previously overt discrimination trends toward a more-subtle and insidious second generation bias that manifests in interactions, informal behaviours, networking and mentoring relationships,  which some of you may know as Unconscious Bias (side point: never be fooled by anyone who suggests they can remove your ‘unconscious biases’ in a 1-hour training session, you’d be wasting your money.  Interventions that focus on suppression of category-based information have been, at best, shown to be ineffective  and at worst, even backfire).  An example of these more-subtle forms of bias might be the simple example of when team members ‘catch-up’ outside of work.  Is it at the Pub on a Friday afternoon?  What demographics within your employ might be precluded from such activities (e.g., non-drinkers, some religious affiliations, care-givers, etc.)?  

Now, it might be tempting to think: “Phew, lucky we have a diversity strategy” and you’re not alone.  Research finds that when organisations have organisational diversity structures, high-status groups (e.g., anglo-saxons, males) believe their organisations are more procedurally fair for lower-status groups (e.g., racial minorities, women) and are subsequently less likely to identify and recognise unjust behaviour when identified by a lower-status group member.   Scary, right?!  But it might not be all bad news.  Extant and emerging research suggests that implicit and explicit beliefs about certain groups (e.g., men, women, older adults, different racial groups) may be changeable through sustained and consistent diversity and inclusion education.   However, this can be tough to facilitate with an internal HR department and it might not be pragmatic to provide a 13-week diversity and inclusion course within your organisation.  So, where might you start?  A good place might be to consider what you’re actually trying to change first, and work backwards to create more manageable segments.  Perhaps you have under-representation of women in certain roles that you’re trying to ameliorate?  A simple starting point might be reviewing recruitment and selection strategies as a foundation: Where do you advertise?  What recruitment tools do you utilise?  What wording do you use that might ‘put-off’ potential hires.  An alternative area to focus on might be exploring the other end of the employee lifecycle via retention rates: How long are women staying in the job?  What are they reporting during the exit-interview process?  There are plenty of components within the employee lifecycle where bias can emerge, but impediments to gender D&I don't necessarily stop there.   

Even at an interpersonal level, gender stereotypes can impact on the way we relate to men and women at work.  A very recent meta-analysis (a process wherein lots of different studies on the same topic are analysed in a single study), shows that women who make direct demands (i.e., they behave in a more openly dominant way) risk being less liked by their peers when compared to equally dominant men, and – very importantly – this hinders their future hiring prospects.  

Now before you ask, “what about the men” [FYI the international day for men is on 19th November 2017], we know from the research that gender stereotypes can hurt men as well.  One published paper shows that gender atypical job candidates, such as those male candidates who advocate on behalf of others, were evaluated as less competent overall and penalised during the hiring process.   In other studies, we find that men are seen as ‘wimpy’ - characterised as ineffective and less deserving of others’ respect when depicted as successful in a female gender-typed job.  I've also read a body of literature showing that men experience penalties for expressing their need for care-giving work arrangements.  While men risk some penalties for gender-inconsistent behaviour, they can also reap some seriously great rewards from being successful within these types of roles which may explain the proliferation of research focusing on women's experiences.    

Overall, scholars have argued that for women the pathway to leadership is akin to a ‘labyrinth’ wherein it’s not so much a ‘glass ceiling’ that prohibits women from getting to the top, but rather a sum of obstacles that present along the way.   We know that “doing gender” can be constructed and reconstructed,  such that men can be the primary ‘givers’ of (stereotypically feminine) behaviours like compassion, care and concern for others and women can be the providers of (stereotypically masculine) behaviours like direction, instruction and punitive action.  So how can we make these less delineated to allow for a more holistic experience of the workplace?  From my research, I can suggest a few things that might help: 

1.    Explore your foundations.  What policies, documentation and processes do you currently have in place that support diversity and inclusion? 
2.    Measure your current progress.  Where do you have ‘gaps’ within D&I within your workplace?  A word for the wise here: be cautious of over-simplifying measurement here, and by all means, be very wary of collapsing your stats across occupations (e.g., the organisational unit that has 60:40 gender representation and on closer examination you find women are concentrated in support functions while men are in technical specialties).  
3.    Identify your barriers.  Are you attracting diverse groups and then losing them?  How can you interrupt this process throughout the employee lifecycle so that you don’t lose your talent?  
4.    Educate your staff.  What do your team members know about D&I?  What strategies have you employed to ensure that more unconscious thought-processes that exclude certain groups are interrupted before they manifest?  
5.    Implement small and measurable changes.  The key here is to have baseline measures so you can test the effects your small and subtle changes are having.  Set measurable time-points and be sure to reassess.  Sustained action is the key to sustained progress here, and there is simply no way to avoid this.  
6.    Celebrate your successes.  D&I has the capacity to be an incredibly powerful tool for differentiating you from your competitors – why not explore and share the positive outcomes you achieve!

If you’d like to hear more about the research on D&I (particularly gender diversity) please feel free to reach out to us.  Here at Within Consulting we love exploring the latest research to help our clients develop effective and efficient strategies for addressing workplace challenges and issues, and we’d love to help you.