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How do we get balance in all respects?

Thinking about the theme of International Women’s Day this year of #balanceforbetter, it struck me what a great theme it is. It sums up nicely one of the key challenges we all face, and with no disrespect to men, a challenge that women, in particular, face.

The exam question still to be answered is how do we get balance in all respects? How do we get more women into senior roles, how do we better celebrate the achievements of women, how do we balance demands of family and career, noting that the balance of those things is constantly changing as we go through different phases in our lives?

So, just to be clear and manage your expectations, I don’t claim to have the answers but having spent 30 years in the workforce in a variety of roles across a range of industries I have learnt quite a lot.

Firstly, cast your mind back about 30 years to the late 1980s. It was a time of privatisation, the financial markets in New Zealand operating a bit like the wild west and very bad fashion: big hair, big earrings and big shoulder pads!

As a newish graduate in the early years of my career I thought we women had cracked the much talked about “glass ceiling”. Around this time, we had a female Prime Minister, a female leader of the opposition, a female Governor General and a female Chief Justice. We also had Theressa Gattung appointed as the first CEO of a major New Zealand company. A big deal at the time and, as history has shown, a big deal still.

However, roll the clock forward 30 years and in fact the glass ceiling is alive and well. Yes, New Zealand stands out on the world stage by having a female Prime Minister, and a new mum at that, but the fact that we do stand out just highlights that this is a global issue and we are not alone. No doubt many of you saw the sobering data from last year’s annual Women in Business Survey released by Grant Thornton which found that gender diversity in senior management in New Zealand organisations had been going backwards for years.

The Women in Business report found that there are less women in senior management roles in New Zealand business that at any time since 2004 when the survey began. In 2004, 31% of Kiwi businesses had at least one woman in a senior management role. By 2017 that had dropped to 20 percent and worse, in 2018 it was only 18%.

That’s a national shame – and a massive missed economic opportunity. A Westpac Diversity Dividend Report last year indicated a 50-50 gender balance in management roles could boost the New Zealand economy by nearly $1 billion. In the US, research by McKinsey showed that reducing gender inequality could boost US GDP by $2.1 trillion. For the sake of everyone, we need to do better.

So, I’ve had 30 years, off and on, asking myself why is this? Why don’t we have better balance and diversity? What’s that about?

We all know that the excuses regularly trotted out by, in the main but not exclusively, men. Excuses such as, there are not enough talented women around, women aren’t interested in leadership roles, women don’t like confrontation, women don’t know how to negotiate, blah blah blah. You get the picture. That is complete nonsense.

What is going on?

I’ve got a theory I’d like to share with you. Having worked in public and private sector organisations large and small, and having worked extensively with senior leadership teams, I’ve come to the conclusion that this apparent chicken and egg problem of how do we get more women into senior roles when we don’t have women in senior roles has a lot to do with inclusion.

My own experience has been that women are excluded in the workplace. We are excluded in ways large and small. Of course, as the data shows, the biggest way we are excluded is because we don’t have enough female decision makers sitting at leadership tables. Personally, I think the most insidious ways we are excluded are in the subtle, small things. The death by 1,000 cuts thing that male dominated workplaces have historically created. A top diplomat summed it up at an event I recently attended. She said, “the patriarchy is in the air”.

It’s not just the obvious, overt things that can drive a sense of exclusion. It’s men talking over women in meetings and no-one calling them out on it, it’s the double standards of acceptable behaviour where assertive women are labelled as bullies or aggressive, but assertive men are described as having great leadership potential or are strong.

Conversely, a woman showing emotion in the workplace might be labelled as weak – funny how as human beings we see that as a bad thing. It’s the raised eyebrows when a woman leaves the office to go and collect her children but when a man does it, they’re being a good parent. It’s the male people leaders who avoid hiring women of child bearing age and those who think that people who work part time, who in the main are women, are not dedicated or career focused. This can exclude women from promotion opportunities.

And my personal favourite, women lack confidence, which as we know often gets translated to women lack competence. This is code for “you don’t present yourself and show up like a man”. Sadly, studies show that this unconscious bias applies to both men and women. A 2012 study undertaken by Yale University psychologist Victoria Brescoll highlights this point.

Brescoll studied what she called “volubility” – how much people talk in a work setting. She found that male CEOs were often the most vocal in the organisations they led. But when she dug a little deeper the results became a little less predictable. She looked for a correlation between power and volubility of female leaders. But she didn’t find one.

So, she asked professional women and men to rate the competence of the male and female peers who spoke out more or less often. What she found explained the relative silence of powerful women and revealed a powerful unconscious bias against women who talk more in business. Interestingly, it was a prejudice held by both women and men.

Males who spoke up more often were perceived as 15% more competent than those who didn’t by both women and men. Powerful women who spoke more than others were rated by both women and men as 14% less competent.

This statistic doesn’t surprise me. During my career when I’ve spoken up in what have always been male dominated leadership teams, I’ve often had the impression that my colleagues viewed me as a nuisance or worse, a trouble maker. I’ve also frequently experienced situations where a male colleague might go on to make the same point I was making and be congratulated for it. I’ve also been told I lack confidence. Go figure!

So, you’re thinking, yes, we know all this, so what’s your point. My point is that a diverse environment is only possible when we have an inclusive environment. Otherwise, the diverse members of the group get shut down and conform to group think. No doubt there is a lot of fantastic work going on across organisations large and small in New Zealand to build more diverse workplaces.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that there is so much effort going into the Diversity & Inclusion space. However, from where I sit, I see a lot of Diverse & Exclusive workplaces. Workplaces that have the appearance of diversity but actually many of the work practices have the effect of excluding people. There’s a lot more work to do to create inclusive workplaces where diversity is genuinely embraced.

How are we going to do this?

Firstly, we must create safe environments for staff to have their say. Harvard professor, Amy Edmonson, has done a lot of great work studying what she calls “psychological safety” in workplaces. She points out the degree to which each person at work is called on to take multiple interpersonal risks every day – some examples;

That sense of risk is magnified multiple times for somebody who perceives themselves as a minority in a workplace. Our survival mechanisms encourage us to avoid taking these interpersonal risks, even though:

The most important factor in encouraging us to take these risks – and the most important factor in determining how well our teams function – is the level of psychological safety we feel at work. In psychologically safe environments, we believe that if we make a mistake, we won’t be penalised for it. We won’t be negatively judged for asking for help or feedback. Psychological safety is clearly an important building block for building an inclusive workplace.

Building safe and inclusive environments may require different types of leadership. Accepting that diverse thinking may be uncomfortable for leaders will take some time. Processes, tools and systems can be used to support the creation of inclusive workplaces.

One clear and immediate thing organisations can do is to implement a system of anonymous listening. Anonymous listening provides a safe way for organisations to understand the attitudes and opinions of staff and about how they operate. This notion is at the heart of the AskYourTeam system. Our company exists to help embed anonymous listening into organisations.

What can we as individuals do to create #balanceforbetter?

We can start by doing everything we can to build inclusive workplaces in our own places of work. This might mean getting some data to create a baseline view of where things are at. It might mean having some difficult conversations with colleagues about behaviours that we see day in and day out that, on reflection, we shouldn’t be walking by, ignoring or rationalising away.

We can agree on a way to gain an honest assessment of the level of psychological safety in our workplace and come up with some focus areas to work on. We can all hold the mirror up to try and see what our own biases are and check in with ourselves when we are in situations where our biases may be inadvertently coming to the fore.

As leaders, we can mentor and encourage younger women and if we are involved in any form of recruitment decision, particularly around leadership roles, we must insist that there is diversity of gender, style and thought on the short list. Don’t even get me started on the gender pay gap. I don’t need to tell anyone what the action is there.

We can get better balance by putting our hands up for that promotion, even if we feel we are not quite ready. This is our problem to solve. We must be part of the solution by getting a seat at the table and encouraging each other to do the same and not resting until we do.

And a final word on that old chestnut: targets. Years ago, when I started my career, I had the naïve view that targets were not required and were not fair. We’ve all heard of the Tiara syndrome. If we women just put out heads down and work hard, we will get recognition, reward and promotion. Our friend, data, proves that this simply isn’t true. So, I’ve changed my view on targets. I believe the only way to drive real change in terms of having more women in senior roles is to have targets to achieve this. We all know, what gets measured, gets done. Countries in the world with targets have significantly lifted the number of women in leadership roles. In New Zealand, the public sector has done this really well. The Prime Minister mentioned in an interview this morning that 50% of public sector CEOs are women. The private sector sadly has some way to go.

Date: 31st March 2019
Category: Wellbeing
Jen McKay
Jen McKay
Global Consulting Director
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