Gender imbalance in the workplace is not only harmful to women’s careers, self-esteem and future prospects, but it also limits the success of an organisation as a whole and underplays the value of those traits culturally regarded as ‘female’. If we as a culture celebrated the value that anyone can bring to an organisation, regardless of their gender or family situation and built flexible working practises to support them, our economy as well as our society would be much stronger.
Women were more inquisitive than men and more likely to consider the interests of multiple stakeholders. At the same time, it reported that women … feel less constrained by rules, regulations, and traditional ways of doing business.Why Women Make Better Directors – Research Study
There are two (large!) topics for discussion here:
- The extent to which women’s work style and natural tendencies when working with people are sufficiently valued, rewarded or promoted within a traditional business environment.
- The extent to which ANYONE who has these style and tendencies are valued and the need for businesses to acknowledge that by promoting only one masculine style of working it creates a huge lack of diversity and a significant blind spots in a company.
For this blog we will just look at what these issues are and how they are linked.
We know that women have different work style preferences to men – taking a slightly stereotypical gender picture (although they are often based in proven biological differences too, but that’s for another post!). A Canadian study showed that women are more inclusive and team minded at work; they are also more likely to look ‘around’ a problem or consider things from other sides. Men are more likely to see one solution and go for it -meaning they are more direct and quicker acting but less collaborative and aware of edge cases which can blind-side them.
When a woman is feeling confident, supported and in top form, she can take the longer, more thorough, more inclusive path to a solution, safe in the knowledge that she knows that she’ll get a good outcome and just because her way is different to male colleagues; doesn’t mean it’s not valid. However; if she’s feeling undervalued and low in confidence, she’s less likely to pursue or push for a different approach, opting instead just to follow the path most trodden. This leads her to sink further into her shell and the organisation loses out on potentially more innovative solutions.
The big challenge for businesses with all this in mind, is not just the internal signals and working environment that this creates, but also relatability for customers. Imagine that your senior team is a ‘cookie cutter’ representation of a certain style of working and behaviours. Yet when looking around the table at client meetings, you notice that the client’s team is much more diverse in both working approach and types of people; how well equipped to deal with that client do you think your team will be? How comfortable does your client feel working with such a mono-chrome organisation?
Acknowledging the important attributes and skills that women offer in a business environment from the ‘shop floor’ right up to the Board Room table is critical if a business wants long term, sustainable success.
Unfortunately none of this is particularly new ‘news’ to anyone. Baroness Helena Morrissey has a highly successful career in the Financial Sector and has been recognised and applauded for her efforts to increase the diversity and equality at a senior level in Britain’s boardrooms. In 2010, she established the 30% Club to campaign for greater female representation on company boards in the FTSE 100 for exactly the reason that change would only come with visibility and proof of the value that women can bring to an organisation.
BUT – this is when we get into Part 2 of this discussion – surely we’re also missing a trick here too. This isn’t a ‘women’s problem’; it’s a cultural bias against anyone with traits that we class as female.
There is point at which organisations also need to remove gender from the equation and instead focus on skills, competencies and personality types. There are lots of team building models and personality modelling such as Myers Briggs which have helped organisations over the years to balance out their workforce. If an organisation placed more emphasis on your work-style preferences and how you operate, rather than how good you SAY you are at doing something, then that gives a anyone the confidence that their skills and abilities will shine through and be acknowledged without then having to be loud and openly confident about it.
Organisations need to be honest with themselves about any underlying unconscious gender bias that could be in the organisation. Question everything; from what company cars do you offer to what language and photography do you use in your organisation’s literature? Is there unconscious bias? When was the last time that a senior male executive had to leave a meeting early because of a sick child – how was that received? What message does that send to others?
The main point is that EVERYONE gains by being more aware of the needs of the WHOLE workforce and ensuring that all types of people and skill sets and personality types are welcomed. It’s not just about ‘men’ – but rather it’s a specifically macho, culturally stereotypical male approach. Men who are naturally more shy and team-focused and more emotionally aware suffer equally from this culture as women do.
We need to expand the discussion away from focusing purely on women. We’re much more open, diverse and accepting of a variety of cultural norms now compared with 50 years ago, so why do we insist on referring to people who are inclusive, caring, empathetic, communicative and more gentle in nature in a negative way as being ‘a typical woman’? These traits are important in everyone and if we as a culture celebrated anyone who showed these characteristics as a valued and important member of society, then we’d all be in a better place. We are talking about people suffering because their culturally ‘female’ traits and responsibilities aren’t valued or recognised – but culture doesn’t define us, we should define culture.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the up and coming generation of young people who are in their late teens now and who are looking towards their careers in big business have grown up in much different gender culture than the 50 year-olds of today. Their expectations of tolerance and equality are much more demanding than any generation has even been before them. If organisations can’t change, then they won’t attract or retain their next generation of executives.
We absolutely still need to a shine a light on the unconscious bias we see across our workplaces against women and female working styles specifically. Let’s all try to do our small part in that…
- Encourage and participate in collaborations of amazing, successful, strong women
- Be proud of our achievements
- Network and talk to people
- Practice self-promotion and self-belief
- Prioritise self care; looking after our mental and physical wellbeing makes us stronger
- Get a coach or a mentor
- Share and celebrate our successes
BUT – IMPORTANTLY, bring male colleagues on the ride! Be vocal about the challenges faced by women and force them to be recognised.
It’s needs EVERYONE to support this level of cultural change, women can’t do it alone. I believe that men truly don’t see or appreciate the struggles that women face on a daily basis – but then we don’t tell them either! We can’t expect them to mind-read or to ‘see’ things that never affect them, let’s give them the chance to help join the movement and be part of the change. Just like Ms Morrissey is trying to do!
At Find Your Wings we are working with women to overcome the effect that these cultural and workplace norms have on them; by providing tailored support and self-guided courses. We are proud to be able to help individual women find their confidence and their own personal balance in their life; but the picture is much bigger and we need to open everyone’s eyes to the systemic imbalance that we have in our society if we are ever going to enact real cultural change.
Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org if any of this feels familiar and you’d like some help with your own version of these issues.
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