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
While a growing number of organisations are working hard to implement programmes to harness a diverse and inclusive work environment, many are still struggling to identify obvious improvements in the metrics they hoped to see changes in. The rhetoric of diversity has outpaced the reality and an increasing number of people are beginning to express ‘diversity fatigue’.
According toa team of world-renowned social psychologists, led by Harvard University Professor Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, the root of this disconnect between rhetoric and reality may lie in the unconscious mind. Most leaders would agree that it is unfair and unwise to choose a CEO because of height, overlook a manager for promotion solely because he is gay, or penalize employees for working flexibly. Yet these are real examples of how we unconsciously make decisions every day in favour of one group, and to the detriment of others, without even realising we are doing it. Even when leaders declare a commitment to fairness in their organisations, unconscious bias causes them to evaluate equal performers differently, as Emilio Castilla, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Benard, of Indiana University, have demonstrated in their research on the ‘paradox of meritocracy’.
It is essential to understand that unconscious biases are not deliberately created; the human brain is hard-wired to make hasty decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. Consider this: we are exposed to as many as 11 millionpieces of information at any one time, but our brains can only functionally deal with about 40. So how do we filter out the rest? We do it by developing a perceptual lens that filters out certain things and lets others in. As a result of these pre-established filters, we see things, hear things, and interpret them differently than other people might. Only occasionally do we realise how subjective those determinations are, and how much they are impacted not by what is in front of us, but by what we interpret is in front of us.
Can we outsmart the brain? According to the renowned behavioural economist, Daniel
Kahneman, it is very hard to eliminate our individual unconscious biases. Hundreds of studies have examined the relevance of interventions for reducing bias. It turns out that the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance, with many participants actually reporting more animosity towards other groups afterward.
So what can we do? I will be exploring some concrete strategies for overcoming unconscious bias in my next blog. Till then, I would love to hear your diverse perspectives on this important topic!
- Levy Paluck, E., and Green, Donald P. (2009). Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 339-367.
- Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 94(7), 14.
- Howard Ross, 2008. Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, Cook Ross
- (2013). Outsmarting our brains. Overcoming hidden biases to harness diversity’s true potential. EY.
This week, Republican candidate Paul Ryan was confirmed as the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, his acceptance of the post was on the condition that he would travel less than previous speakers in order to preserve valuable time with his family. Of course this type of demand from such a high-profile man garnered a lot of press attention, as notions of family time and flexible working remain rooted in the ‘working mum’ domain in many countries, industries and companies. It’s still (sadly) rare to hear as may working dads negotiating school drop offs with busy work schedules, as working mums. So, will Mr. Ryan’s bold statement be a catalyst for change?
My work at the Future of Work Research Consortium highlights time and again the importance of role models when it comes to shifting an organisation’s culture. No matter how many policies and practices HR may devise around flexible working and work/life balance, if those at the top aren’t using them, then those attempting to climb the ladder will take this as a signal that they shouldn’t either. Having leaders simply avail of flexible working options isn’t enough either. They need to use the options in a way that is visible to the rest of the organisation. One of the most interesting comments I heard recently from leaders at a Professional Services firm was that they were working flexibly and assumed that others in their teams were doing so as well. However, this was not the reality. Their teams were often unaware that they were taking this approach as the leaders weren’t communicating about it and hence the signal that this kind of autonomy in working style was accepted and, lo and behold, normal was not being received. Mr. Ryan’s very visible commitment to work/life balance will hopefully act as the cue to his team that making time for family is not a barrier to success.
That is the implication for his own team, but what about the wider American and Global audience? What impact can this action have on a larger scale? These are tougher questions. While Mr. Ryan has the bargaining power to make such demands, the average American worker does not. Moreover, he has previously voted against providing paid family leave for federal employees, which has made him an unlikely advocate for a cultural shift in favour of work/life balance. It’s promising to see signs of his change in views on this and we will have to expect that as a matter of course, he will now work for these rights to be extended broadly so that it is both socially acceptable and financially viable for all dads – and not just those in powerful political positions – to exercise the same choices.
So, can Paul Ryan move the needle on work/life balance? My view is that he can certainly change one important aspect of the dialogue. We need more male leaders to demonstrate their desire to be actively involved in their children’s upbringing and highlight the challenges they face in juggling responsibilities – and of course the flexibility they avail of in order to strike a balance. Making this a conversation that managers have with all employees, rather than a request working mums submit to HR, will be a significant step in achieving work/life balance and gender parity.