By Amanda Fajak, Executive Director at Walking the Talk
20 years ago I published an article looking at the link between power, gender and the likelihood of promotion. In that research I uncovered an important finding. Women were associated with emotion and emotion was a characteristic that was not associated with strong leadership. Inversely, men were associated with assertiveness, a characteristic that was associated with strong leadership.
This finding has been reiterated many times over the years with the general consensus being that men are traditionally associated with aggression, risk taking, decisive behaviour and autonomy (what are called agentic qualities) – what have historically been viewed as valuable leadership skills – whereas women are traditionally associated with being kind, caring, humble and relational (what are called communal qualities) – historically less valued leadership skills. These stereotypes of men and women have resulted in historic streaming of men and women into different careers (very broadly in 1998 this meant men traditionally in finance and business and women in nursing and teaching).
Fast forward to 2018 and I was curious as to what has changed. When you look into our business press, there is still evidence of the male hero leader – with the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zukerberg being credited with single handedly changing our lives. However there are also strong women leaders and influencers making the headlines – Michelle Obama, Angela Merkl, Mary Barra (GE), Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Carolyn McCall (ITV), Theresa May to name a few.
Interestingly, research from as recently as 10 years ago showed that despite an increasing number of women in more powerful roles, women had started to see an association between feminine and leadership characteristics, but men had not.
The latest research by Eagly – who has polled views on gender stereotyping since 1946 – delivered good and bad news. Over time, men have increasingly been seen as more agentic (aggressive, decisive, etc). Over time women have been increasingly seen as more intelligent and competent than men but the stereotype of women being more communal has also increased.
These sorts of findings are a source of frustration to many. On the surface it would appear that we haven’t made much progress in breaking down stereotypes. This is only 1 lens, if we broaden out our perspective another picture might be emerging.
Recent research conducted by Walking the Talk showed that investment professionals are less likely to invest in organisations that are aggressive, overconfident, overly hierarchical – organisations that have more agentic qualities.
Similarly, recent research by the Centre for Creative Leadership listed the following 10 characteristics to be associated with leaders: Honesty; Ability to delegate; Communication; Sense of humour; Confidence; Commitment; Positive attitude; Creativity; Ability to inspire; Intuition. These are more communal qualities.
In the same vein the latest thinking about the leaders that create psychological safety – a critical underpinning to organisation health – includes modesty; humility; openness; supportiveness; inclusive decision making; acknowledging others; emotional intelligence; and accessibility – more communal qualities.
If we look at changing perceptions about leadership it is evident that we are starting to see a significant shift in terms of what good leadership looks like. Could it be that although stereotypes about women have not changed, society has come to a point where it is starting to recognise that feminine characteristics are what it takes for strong leadership?
 Fajak, A. & Haslam, A. (1998). Gender solidarity in hierarchical organizations. British Journal of Social Psychology. 37, 73-94.
 Eagly, A.H.. Wood, W. & Diekman, A.B. (2000). Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: A current appraisal. In T. Eckes and H.M. Trautner (Eds.). The developmental social psychology of gender (pp.123-174). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
 Duehr, E. & Bono. J. (2006). Men, women, and managers: are stereotypes finally changing? Personnel Psychology, 59, 815-846.
Applying for jobs can be a nerve-wracking experience, as competition is high and a step toward to your career goals hangs in the balance. My assumption was that all candidates shared this same trepidation, but research from 2014 has revealed that men are far less cautious than women in this regard and will tend to apply for a role if they meet around 60% of the job requirements, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100% of them.[i] Why does this disparity exist, and why aren’t more women applying for roles within their reach?
One argument is that the language used within job adverts themselves dissuades certain genders from applying. For example, women are more likely to be deterred by adverts requesting individuals able to ‘manage’ rather than ‘develop’ teams, whereas men tend to prefer jobs requesting ‘competitive’ rather than ‘supportive’ candidates. Words such as these, imbued with gender connotations, are surprisingly prevalent. The technology company, Textio carried out research in 2016 to flag gendered language and found that the average job advert contains twice as many ‘masculine’ phrases as ‘feminine’ ones.[ii] A similar study by recruitment services company, Total Jobs discovered that, within the 77,000 job adverts included in their study, 478,175 words carried gender bias; an average of six male-coded or female-coded words per advert.[iii] The use of gendered language can pose a significant problem, as it can signal to potential candidates that they don’t – and won’t – belong.
Simple alterations can make a huge difference. Atlassian, an Australian software company, hired 80% more women into technical roles within two years by changing the wording of its job adverts, demonstrating the extensive effect of language.[iv] Paying close attention to the language used will be critical for companies wanting to grow the size of their talent pool, as ZipRecruiter proved when it discovered that gender neutral adverts receive up to 42% more applications than more biased ones.[v]
And yet, there are some points of contention that arise when asking organisations to change their wording. Firstly, in some cases, specific words are necessary. For example, positions in investment banking demand a level of competition and fearlessness, and failing to include these elements in a job description may mean that a new employee is unprepared for the realities of the role. Secondly, changing the language in adverts does not attempt to address the underlying social issues concerning why certain characteristics are perceived as either masculine or feminine in the first place. Removing gendered words from job descriptions does not necessarily remove the biases associated with them. However, despite these concerns, crafting gender neutral job adverts is an expression of a firm’s commitment to inclusion; and this must be seen as a step in the right direction.
Some state that the 60%/100% disparity is not evidence of a language problem but of a “confidence gap” between men and women.[vi] They argue that women are less confident in their own abilities, whereas men are more self-assured and tend to take a more “cavalier” approach to applications.[vii] This may be true of certain individuals but it seems both unfair and unlikely to assume that all men and women fit this stereotype. In fact, researchers at the Harvard Business Review have dubbed the confidence gap a “myth”, suggesting that women are not deterred from job applications because they lack confidence but because they do not want to waste time and energy applying to a role they are not adequately equipped to perform.[viii] Which instead raises the question: why are men applying for jobs that they aren’t qualified for? And, do the men that start in these roles find themselves out of their depth? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps what this disparity actually shows is that more men have simply seen these job adverts for what they really are: wish lists.
A lack of female applicants signals the need for a wider change in how job adverts are understood.
Lengthy bullet-pointed lists of job requirements can trick applicants into thinking that each point is vital when, in reality, recruiters write lists of ideal attributes rather than strict, unyielding lists of absolute necessities. Limiting the number of words in your job adverts will make it far easier for candidates to realise that they meet the requirements, while also reducing the risk of including gendered language. As more people feel both able and inspired to apply, recruiters may find that individuals with transferrable skills can bring something unexpected to the organisation and take the role in a new and exciting direction. Furthermore, recent research on job descriptions has shown that providing people with a rigid list of tasks does not encourage them to push boundaries and innovate. Looser listings encourage opportunities for creativity and demonstrate that your organisation has space for people to be ambitious and to craft their own work and career path.[ix] Let all of your applicants feel 100% ready to take on a role they can help to shape.
To talk more about inclusion at work, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you work hard you will succeed. If you really want to achieve your dreams, it’s in your hands.”
We are all familiar with variations on these thoughts, and the idea that individualism and hard work will win out in the end is a truism that many people take on faith. Organisations often construct their recruitment processes with the idea that society is meritocratic – believing that those high-potential hires have succeeded due to their work ethic and skills alone.
Despite this, research has shown that it is often those from affluent backgrounds who land the best jobs. Even when people from disadvantaged backgrounds manage to break into a professional career, they face an earnings penalty compared to colleagues who come from better-off backgrounds.[i] Despite having the same education attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, those from poorer backgrounds are paid an average of £2,242 (seven per cent) less.[ii] Women and ethnic minorities face a ‘double’ disadvantage in earnings. Those from poorer backgrounds in some cases also exclude themselves from promotion for fear of not ‘fitting in’ and were less likely to ask for pay rises. This is a challenge that organisations are increasingly waking up to. Competition for talent and the need for diversity of thought mean that organisations will lose out commercially if they do not have a cross-section of employees that reflect wider society.
So how can companies improve their diversity and foster inclusiveness around social mobility? Here are three insights from our research:
- Look for unintended biases in the recruitment process – Could your recruitment approach be filtering out applicants from less advantaged backgrounds? Some organisations, such as EY, are experimenting with relaxing their hiring criteria, or implementing ‘blind’ CVs in recruitment, so that details on university or education are hidden.[iii] Advances in predicative talent analytics may also enable organisations to identify promising talent from a larger pool than they might traditionally consider, basing hiring on data rather than intuition.[iv]
- Sense-check the gap between the rhetoric and reality – Organisations may think they have the practices and processes in place to increase their social diversity, but if people at all levels of the organisation are unware of them, or don’t use them, there will be no shift in culture or behaviour.
- Identify a priority area and experiment – Companies often think that moving the needle on diversity means making large-scale changes across several areas. Our research and work on our own I&D Framework has shown that a tailored and focused approach is often more effective. Start by identifying what your organisation does well, and where it is weaker. Selecting key areas allows companies to monitor and measure new interventions to understand the real impact and the changes that take place.
Keeping these insights in mind will help ensure your organisation builds a diverse, inclusive culture.
Interested in creating an I&D strategy that is ready to enable action within your organisation and truly shift the needle on I&D read our complimentary Insights Report on Inclusion and Diversity here: http://bit.ly/IandD-MovingTheNeedle
Or for more information about our I&D research, contact me at email@example.com or on 02077591852
[i] Rivera, L. (2015). Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton University Press
[ii] Friedman, S., Laurison, D., and Macmillan, L. (2017). Social Mobility, The Class Pay Gap and Intergenerational Worklessness: New Insights From The Labour Force Survey.
[iii] EY drives social mobility by removing academic entry criteria http://www.ey.com/uk/en/newsroom/news-releases/17-02-02-ey-drives-social-mobility-by-removing-academic-entry-criteria
[iv] (2017) FoW Report on Shifting Identities
The wave of stories of pervasive sexual harassment and assault in recent weeks, from Hollywood to Parliament, have made me think about the role of culture in normalising such behaviour. We are currently researching Shifting Cultures for our upcoming Masterclass, and part of that research has centred on how cultures are formed. Are organisations aware of how much of their culture is shaped by the mindset of the dominant group?
We all have social identities, established through self-reflection from interactions with others. The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley referred to this as the ‘looking glass self’. As we grow up and are socialised, we see the way people talk and act with us, which then feeds into our self-perception. This includes stereotypes that people already have about our group identity. As a middle-class, white woman from an educated background, for example, I will have received subtle cues about how I’m expected to behave, and what I’m expected to achieve.
Yet arguably, not everyone is aware of the extent to which they have benefited from their collective identity. In his discussion on modern masculinity, the artist Grayson Perry identified a group he termed ‘Default Man’. White, middle-class, heterosexual, usually middle-aged, they are, as Perry notes, a tribe that does not think of itself as a tribe. Instead they often see themselves as individuals. Yet collectively they profoundly shape our culture.
Take the workplace. There are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P companies led by men named John. It is clear that this impacts organisational culture, yet it is unlikely that as an individual ‘John’ feels his progress acts a role-model for other men like him, or that he is part of a community with similar experiences that shape his behaviour and mindset. Does John feel that he got where he was all by himself, with no societal support at all? Research has identified an ‘out-group’ homogeneity effect,where people believe in the uniformity of those not like them: ‘they are alike: we are diverse’. The power imbalance still prevalent in society means that the male in-group often either consciously or unconsciously defines the broader culture.
This is true for the more toxic elements discussed in recent weeks, but also for parts of culture that we are not even aware of. There is a parable that describes two young fish swimming along, who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” How much of what we take for granted in terms of qualities of an effective leader, or criteria for progression within an organisation is subjectively biased in favour of the dominant group?
Recently, there has been a rise in the number of organisations realising that building an inclusive culture means engaging the majority group. Deloitte, for example, ended its women’s networks and affinity groups, instead involving men in the conversation and making them accountable for D&I goals. The fact that is has taken this long, highlights the extent to which men have traditionally been viewed as the default that doesn’t need to change, rather than an identity group like any other. If workplace culture is going to shift this needs to continue, as companies reckon with how much of their culture is formed by one group and the ramifications of this.
 Rousseau, N. (2002) Self, Symbols and Society, Rowman and Littlefield.
 Perry, G. (8 October 2014) The Rise and Fall of Default Man, New Statesman https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/grayson-perry-rise-and-fall-default-man
 FoW Power and Leadership Report 2016
 Ostrom, T.M and Sedikides, C. (1992) Out-Group Homogenity Effects in Naural and Minimal Groups, Psychological Bulletin 112(3). 536-553.
 Wittenberg-Cox, A. (3 August 2017) Deloitte’s Radical Attempt to Reframe Diversity, Harvard Bussiness Review https://hbr.org/2017/08/deloittes-radical-attempt-to-reframe-diversity
Last week, I attended a workshop at my toddler’s nursery school and I was disheartened to see that there was only one father in a room full of mothers – most of whom had left their work early in order to attend. And I wondered, where is the change that was to come with the millennial men? Doesn’t all the research indicate that they want to become much more involved fathers? What is stopping them?
I have been researching the topic of gender parity for over a few years now, and it is extremely off-putting to see lack of progress we have made on this issue. Many large organisations are now on their second or third wave of diversity and inclusion programmes. However, a good number of them are still struggling to identify obvious improvements in the metrics they hoped to see changes in.
I feel we cannot move the needle on this issue unless we collectively stop viewing mothers as being primarily responsible for childcare. According to the 2016 Women in the Workplace Study, at every stage in their careers, women perform more childcare than men. The study also found a link between the quantity of childcare women do and their leadership ambition: the more work women do at home, the less interested they are in leadership positions. The main reason for this disconnect is that the combination of work and childcare responsibilities is difficult to reconcile with the dominant model in the business world, which demands total availability as well as greater geographical mobility.
Motherhood has long been a dominant explanation for the small proportion of women in corporate boardrooms. Some of the most compelling evidence of the motherhood penalty comes from experiments conducted by sociologists; Shelley Correll, Stephen Bernard, and In Paik. In the experiment, they asked college students to rate a pair of job applicants after examining their résumés and the notes from screening interviews. After establishing that the application materials presented the candidates as equally qualified, the researchers altered them to indicate that one applicant was a parent. When being considered for the same job, mothers were significantly less likely to be recommended for hire and, when they were, they were offered on average $11,000 less in starting salary, than childless women. Fathers were not penalised at all. The participants revealed that they assumed the mothers to be inherently less competent and less committed.
One school of thought suggests that the issue is down to women’s own preferences – that women value career less than men or that mothers do not want high-profile, challenging work. However, research indicates that women are certainly not lacking in ambition. In fact, they begin their careers with ambitions that are just as high as their male peers. Furthermore, the 2013 Life and Leadership After HBS study, which surveyed more than 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates, suggests that when women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they want to devote their attention to motherhood; the majority leave reluctantly, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with few prospects for advancement.
What is the way forward? Millennial men finally behaving in accordance to what they have been saying, and organisations actively enabling and not penalising them to embrace fatherhood.
McKinsey & Company and LEanIn.org. (2016, September). Women in the Workplace Study. Retrieved from https://womenintheworkplace.com
Life and Leadership after HBS. (2013). Retrieved from
Correll, S., Benard, S., & Paik, I. (2007). Getting a Job: Is there a motherhood penalty. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 112, No. 5
In the last month, I’ve discussed gender balance with representatives of some of the world’s most recognised organisations – from oil and gas companies, to real estate, to professional services. I’ve been supporting clients with inclusion and diversity (I&D) for around five years now – it’s a core part of what we do at Hot Spots Movement– and I’ve covered topics from unconscious bias, to multiple identities, to neurodiversity. However, what I encountered for the first time recently was the issue of ‘what about men?’ One of my clients challenged me with the question ‘Should we have an International Men’s Day; after all we have an International Women’s Day’? Another asked what I thought about having someone on their I&D Board to represent white men… after all, they have a BAME representative, and several representatives for women.
While the questions themselves are interesting, what they hint at is perhaps more important: how we shift our discussion of important issues – from promotions in the workplace, to fertility – from centred around women, to more accurately encompassing the full human experience: male, female and everyone along the gender spectrum. Take for example a recent and, unusually for the BBC, poorly researched article about graduate women and their choices regarding fertility.
The headline boldly asserted: Women graduates ‘desperately’ freeze eggs over ‘lack of men’. Let’s leave aside for a moment, the way in which the article and its headline have taken something as progressive and empowering as egg freezing, and contorted it such that it now depicts women as passive and weak.
Instead, let’s look at the study that was the basis of the article and headline: interviews with 150 women who had frozen their eggs. Now, this fairly narrow and specific sample can only be useful in determining why women who have frozen their eggs have done so… and even then, from a research point of view, it would need a set of caveats longer than Apple’s terms and conditions. It certainly offers no insight into what graduate women as a group think, feel, or do, because it has only looked at a very small sample of the very small percentage (0.00004% in the UK) who decide to freeze their eggs.[i]
More interestingly, it presents no view of the male experience of fertility. What about professional men of similar ages? What are their choices, their concerns and the actions that they are or are not taking in response? It would be interesting, for example, to understand why graduate men are also delaying fatherhood at much the same rate as graduate women. And what choices they feel they have if they find themselves with a ‘lack of women’ when they reach the point at which they would like to have children. In fact, this would be an infinitely more interesting topic given men have far fewer options in this regard – adoption can be a difficult process and perhaps more so if you are a single male. What about surrogacy? If you are male and live in the UK, you will need to have a female friend willing to undertake this significant commitment for you as it is illegal to pay someone to do so. Essentially, where are the views and experiences of men in this conversation, and why are they still – to the detriment of all genders – excluded from the narrative, such that a topic as all-encompassing as fertility is presented as something only women need worry about?
Fertility is just one example, but take any topic from the ‘women’ page of most news websites (on The Guardian site you’ll find it under the ‘Lifestyle’ tab… groan), and it is quickly apparent that whether it is parenting, choosing no to be a parent, domestic violence, thriving at work, trying to look your best, or simply trying to get out of bed when depression hits, all of these issues are human issues rather than uniquely female. Furthermore, none of them can be addressed or resolved by framing them as women’s issues and excluding the male experience in how they are reported, and then received and acted upon. If we want to achieve gender balance for the benefit of everyone, then we need to start with how we present the issues that are so important to us all.
[i] Sources: Office for National Statistics and HFEA
https://www.hfea.gov.uk/about-us/publications/ Fertility treatment – trends and figures