Organisational culture prevents us from achieving gender parity sooner

Achieving gender parity is a complex problem within organisations and there is no silver bullet to solve it. Nadine O'Regan presents some of the cultural and procedural habits that are preventing parity from happening sooner.

Unsurprisingly, there is a high correlation between countries possessing higher levels of gender equality societally and the diversity of companies within that country. Countries with greater education opportunities for girls, legal protection for women, financial empowerment of women and more affordable access to childcare for all, experience higher levels of overall performance, competitiveness and general wellbeing.

Globally we need to be changing the way we think about women’s role in society.  And there are some critical habits in the workplace when it comes to culture and processes that are preventing gender parity from happening sooner. There are more than what  I’ve outlined below, but here are some of the big cultural misalignments we need to rectify to make workplace gender parity possible.

We need to see it to believe it’s possible

In all areas of society, girls don’t see enough female role models.  They are under-represented in politics, leadership, and even on TV. Research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute finds that gender parity has a long way to go on screen.  When specifically looking at shows aimed at children, they found that not only are there less female speaking roles, but at every age, girls and women are sexualised, hold fewer jobs on screen, hold very few decision-making or leadership roles on screen, and have almost no roles in STEM. Instead, they are more likely to be on screen in domestic roles, with purely romantic ambitions and almost always take a back seat to their male leads.

The Geena Davis Institute is committed to championing the rights of women by increasing the number of female leaders and role models on screen. As Geena Davis herself says, “If she can see it, she can be it.” Girls need to know it is possible, after all, how can progress accelerate without women being in a position to influence decision making?

Worldwide consistency when it comes to gender parity

The problem can seem so complex when we look at it globally. Consider these global issues impacting the gender parity agenda. How can we achieve gender parity without:

  • Making violence against girls and women illegal in ALL countries?
  • Stopping the trade of girls and women as commodities?
  • Improving female access to education globally?
  • Allowing ALL women to have their own bank accounts?
  • Re-thinking the long-held view that women are the primary care-giver?
  • Neutralising the impact to a woman’s career after a period of parental leave?
  • Equal pay for equal work?

It is hard to believe that any of the above scenarios can still be the norm today for so many women worldwide. In your own bubble of first world corporate life, you might see some women progress, have a great sounding diversity statement on your corporate website, think that women will progress if they want to, and believe that all women who opt out of the workforce to have children did so by choice.  You can also be forgiven for thinking that we are well on the way to solving the problem, but you are seriously mistaken. The day a female CEO appointment of a Fortune 500 company DOESN’T make headlines, we know we are making progress.

Men need to take off their rose-coloured glasses

Men consistently rate their own workplace higher than women as being a good place for women to work.  It appears men are not tackling this problem fast enough because they have underestimated the problem - because they are not living the problem! When women are under-represented in all decision-making roles, it falls to men to champion change. We need high female participation at all levels and only with critical mass can we finally achieve gender parity.

All women face more hurdles than men. Men are generally assessed on their potential, whereas women are generally assessed on previous performance. Women receive less credit for their individual performance than men, are held to higher performance standards, are criticised more if they fail, and the fact that they are women brings into question their ability to manage work with children (even if they have none).  Mothers are assumed to be less committed to their careers and less ambitious than their male counterparts, and childless women are deemed too ambitious, and ambitious women are considered too aggressive. And... it turns out a lot of this stuff is hard-wired into our unconscious.

The role of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is an evolutionary hangover. Although thousands of years ago it might have helped us to survive by being wary of anyone different to ourselves, in the modern age the result of these innate tendencies is that we recruit, develop, promote and prefer people like ourselves and overlook others who may be just as worthy, if not more.  Our brains deal with the huge amounts of information that we face every day by stereotyping based on experiences from our childhood.  So, this problem will not eventually solve itself, it requires commitment to a change program over a sustained period of time from individuals, governments and corporates.

Female leadership to solve the problems of today

Studies also show that there are very real differences in how men and women lead.  Ironically though, many of the attributes associated with a more female oriented leadership style, are the attributes in high demand for addressing current or future corporate challenges, according to today’s CEO’s. Diversity is not about giving certain groups of people preferential treatment.  It is simply about hiring the best person for the role and minimising poor hiring decisions. But with such huge gains available, why are more companies not jumping on the gender parity bandwagon?

Well one reason is that women spend 75% more time than men in unpaid work like caring for children, caring for elders and household chores. The long-held view that women run the household prevents many women from being available to a company anytime anywhere.  To change this, we need a sustained commitment from all companies to transform the corporate culture into one where everyone’s performance is measured by results rather than time in the office.

How we can solve this issue

Employee programs designed to support an inclusive culture need to be accessible to all, including men.  The role of the carer should be respected, and anyone should be free to utilise flexibility programs without fear that it will negatively impact their career. Work life balance needs to be supported, and flexibility and agility must become the norm.

Raising children is the most important job there is.  Your parents did it but doing so should not make someone unemployable. Parents should be able to re-enter the workforce at a level that reflects their experience. If both men and women have access to tangible employee benefits with regards to work life balance and affordable childcare, then we can get more women in paid work period, and this benefits everyone.

Leaders need to role model the culture when it comes to work life balance and flexibility. It is easier for them to do so because they can manage or control their own work. They can demonstrate inclusive behaviours themselves by leaving work to collect their children from time to time, conducting meetings from home via video conference, travelling for work even though they are a parent and so on.

I ended my first article on IWD 2023 with this tip, but I feel so passionate about it, that I’m writing it here again: my final and most important tip for how you as an individual can help to achieve gender parity is this:

Talk to your children about equality and raise them to respect human rights, whilst challenging your own unconscious biases and committing to change.

I’m looking forward to seeing Australian workplaces overcome more cultural norms in 2023 so we see more women than ever step closer to gender parity.

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