By Dulcie Swanston, founder and director of Top Right Thinking
providing accredited training across the country. She also recently published, It’s Not Bloody Rocket Science, a book designed to help you adapt, change and develop.
The business case for increasing the number of women in senior roles in business is startling. If companies with 33% or fewer women executives were to perform with the same net profit margin as companies with more than 33% women executives, this would lead to an additional £195bn of pre-tax profits.
With a broad acceptance of this evidence — the stated and positive intentions on social media and robust diversity strategies in most workplaces — it can be hard to get your head around how gender inequality can persist in business when it does not make good financial sense and so much effort is seemingly put into level the playing field.
However, a little knowledge about the science behind gender bias and our personal ‘immunity’ to change can highlight the complex and concealed reasons that stand in the way of women overcoming the challenges they might face at work to progress — and help women and their organisations to work through and beyond them.
Unconscious Gender Bias
Our unconscious biases were embedded long before our careers began. We all have them, even when we believe ourselves to be genuinely committed to equality. Whilst we might be actively committed to the idea that we want to contribute to having a progressive workplace where women can progress, there may be some things that we are doing that are unhelpful and work against our good intentions.
For example, if your organisation uses Cognitive Ability or GCA tests which look at thinking and reasoning then you might be interested to know that women perform less well on these tests (this applies to BAME and neuro-diverse candidates too). Non-cognitive battery tests which look at motivation, integrity, and interpersonal skills, don’t have these sub-group differences.
Your organisation may have research that shows these tests have ‘high predictive validity, meaning that people who perform well in the role, also do well in these tests. However, research studies show that men are simply more confident in their abilities to do these tests well. When no brief was given to a group before a GCA test, men performed better than their female counterparts. However, when the women in the group were shown evidence beforehand that women had just as much innate ability as men at maths, the female candidates outperformed the men.
Another area in organisations where unconscious bias might be putting up barriers for women is in its measures of performance. Does your organisation measure commitment on output or presenteeism? There is lots of research to show that hours worked do not correlate with equal performance. And if people in your organisation are penalised for working shorter hours, it might be worth questioning, aside from salary, what else they miss out on that has simply been overlooked.
It’s hugely discomforting to confront that you personally, or an organisation that you have worked hard to make more diverse, isn’t free of bias and that it is just something that a few stuffy, out of date colleagues have going on. Many of the blockers that women face to progression are unintentional, but mutual acknowledgement and conscious change will be crucial for individuals and organisations that want to make a difference.
Personal Change Immunity
Whilst we can accept personal change is desirable and necessary, doing something about it and sustaining new habits is easier said than done. Our innate ‘immunity to actual change’ researched by two leading Harvard academics in 2009 soberingly summarised;
“…a study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully…”
Business is not life or death so our ability to follow through with change that makes us feel uncomfortable or requires confrontation of personal biases is likely to be even less than one in seven and arguably could be one of the biggest challenges for women to overcome within.
Seeing change as insurmountable
Understanding the hidden biases and the human difficulty of changing anything at all can help us to appreciate there isn’t likely to be a quick fix or a silver bullet for your organisation or yourself when it comes to levelling the playing field. Without a deeper understanding of the neuroscience that exists underneath our organisational cultures and values, we may understand the business case and actively support the initiatives intended to level the playing field but not understand why the return on investment is frustratingly elusive. Lasting change takes time, constant vigilance, and a permanent commitment to cultivating a growth mindset.
The key to overcoming these challenges, I believe to be simple. We need to take a step back, understand the science, appreciate the complexity, and avoid investing organisational finances and personal energy into initiatives that are well-intentioned, but which don’t generate change.
Here are three things to invest your time and money in that just might make a difference!
Build trust to get permission to challenge
To have any chance of exposing unconscious bias and addressing our immunity to change, we must trust the person that is challenging our assumptions. As human beings, if we don’t trust that the person who feeds something back to us genuinely has our best intentions at heart and is being authentic and honest, then we can’t help but move into defensive mode to protect ourselves.
Women who want to progress can overcome some of the challenges they will face by finding a mentor or coach, that they trust implicitly, to give them difficult feedback when a behaviour or part of their style is holding them back.
Equally, leaders in an organisation who are trying to encourage more women into senior roles must cultivate trust for their teams to feedback openly, or people simply won’t speak truth to power.
When it then becomes normal to challenge and safe for people to voice uncomfortable truths and raise difficult issues, the organisation has a chance to confront difficult situations that don’t have easy, off the shelf answers and women have the chance to have a refreshing and open route to the top.
Invest in the right support
Unfortunately, there is mixed evidence that unconscious bias training works, despite a McKinsey estimate that about $8bn is spent on diversity training annually in the US alone. The UK Civil Service halted their unconscious bias training in 2020 after carefully reviewing evidence which concluded amongst other things that implicit bias training had little effect on the growth of women in management.
A ‘tick-box’ training day might highlight unconscious bias exists, but it can do more harm than good if people think that in undertaking it, the problem is solved. Tackling unconscious bias will always be deeply uncomfortable because our brains are wired to resist challenges to our existing patterns. It’s therefore, naïve to expect that lasting change can result from simple ‘tick-box’ training days. Any training that can even begin to unravel such complex and deep-rooted neurological wiring will need to be deep, thoughtful and ongoing.
An investment in training that helps both males and females understand how to build trust by being authentic and empathetic and then using that trust to provide a positive and proactive challenge that people can hear is likely to have a more positive impact and better long-term return on investment.
Start with yourself.
If you are a woman in business challenge your own bias about what you can and cannot do. Of course, it makes sense to focus on your strengths but try to identify when you are telling yourself or others something that has no basis in fact but does have some truth in the way that gender is perceived – for example, “I’m no good with numbers” or “I’m useless with technology”. The question is whether you have tried to get better at numbers or whether you are investing enough time in getting up to speed with the technology relevant to your marketplace.
Are you perpetuating some of the myths that exist in your organisation with your own words and actions? Question yourself and others around you when you hear limiting beliefs about presenteeism such as “I can’t commit to the hours a more senior job needs” or over-apologising for being a parent when inevitable difficulties arise “I’m so sorry, I feel terrible, but I need to fetch my son from school because he is ill”.
It can be frustrating when an organisational process is getting in the way of your personal development. It is also undoubtedly ‘unfair’ that the same behaviour in a man can be perceived as ‘strong’ and in a woman as ‘aggressive’. However, investing too much-thinking power and airtime on things that you can’t control or influence can distract you from investing your precious brain fuel and limited time on the things you can. Are you better spending hours railing at the injustice that if you were a man your work persona would be perceived differently? Or taking that unpalatable truth as unfair but out of your control for now, and finding a smart, slightly different but still wholly authentic way to present your ideas that gets people on board?