The key to closing the gender gap? Leading by example


Deborah Knight, Director of Client Services at Perkbox

In the era of the #MeToo Movement and a renewed focus on the gender pay gap, the reality of what it’s really like to be a woman in a leadership position has never been so topical.

But while the workforce seems to be waking up to the reality that talented women contribute as much as men to organisations, examples show that this is still a struggle.

At HSBC Holdings Plc, Britain’s biggest bank, women earn on average 59 percent less than men. At Lloyds Banking Group Plc women get paid about a third less than men. In fact, according to the Office of National Statistics, the national average pay gap is as high as 18 percent. Are we really taking the matter seriously enough?

Perhaps more so than ever, companies are recognising that there is work to be done on this front and are openly discussing it in public. But that doesn’t make the issue any better. In fact, for those that truly care about the concept of fairness, they’re probably furious about what it reveals. It’s time to change.

To that effect, here’s what I think can help achieve equality, particularly in the workplace.

Educate, in theory and in practice

Discrimination can sometimes be so ingrained in our daily lives that we don’t even realise it’s happening. Many working women for example, face what is known as the ‘motherhood penalty’ – the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without dependent children. We don’t often do this on purpose, do we? So why does it happen?

Key to changing this is raising awareness around unconscious bias – a bias that happens outside of our control triggered by our brain making quick decisions based on background, personal experiences, cultural environment, etc. By learning to scrutinise our own decision-making process we understand how stereotypes work and influence us, and hopefully avoid jumping into conclusions so quickly next time.

But raising awareness isn’t enough. In fact, some researchers argue that raising awareness simply normalises biases and “lets people off the hook”. As leaders, it’s our role to use our authority to effectively drive change, act as an example to our employees and give them direction so that they know how to follow. This starts by acknowledging the differences within the team and appreciating that it’s important they exist.

It takes efforts and time, but it can be done.

Create inclusive cultures

We must avoid thinking of men and women separately. Indeed, people often equate diversity with visible aspects such as gender and ethnicity, but there is much more to it than that. Diversity also includes religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, geographic location and lots more.

Ultimately, diversity is about creating an inclusive environment where everyone accepts each other and provides opportunities to achieve their full potential, celebrating differences and focusing on the importance of having a common purpose. In the workplace, avoid turning it into a box ticking exercise where you must have ‘x’ amount of women, ‘x’ amount of men etc. Diversity just isn’t that.

As leaders, this requires a significant degree of both emotional and social intelligence – the ability to rise above the need of having to justify or validate. For example, be sure to give people options. Be this working from home vs. in the office; starting at 7am vs. at 11am. Let them self-select into what works best for them and avoid making judgements. It will encourage authenticity, one of the greatest assets to let everyone flourish in their own way.

Pick the next leaders, then educate them using male and female role models

Research continues to highlight that women are under-represented at all levels across organisations. There are many reasons behind this and the perception of the causes vary depending on who you ask and their experiences too. The general themes tend to be: stereotypes and assumptions in recruitment, perceptions of female potential, impact of career breaks, inflexible working practices and lack of mentoring and role models.

To change this, it’s important that female leaders are as accessible and visible to employees who aren’t managed by women as they are to those that are. This is key to be able to offer support and guidance from a different perspective. It’s also the only real way to gain insights and be able to understand and represent women’s views and needs at a Board Level.

In environments that are heavily male led, seek for guidance from external sources, bring in guest speakers or encourage attendance to external events that feature female leaders. We need to have a conscious, deliberate and inclusive approach to developing the female leaders of the future and that starts by everyone having a voice.

As leaders, the onus is on us to lead by example. With small steps, we will be better placed to make the right judgements. But let’s also realise that recognising isn’t enough, we must actively take action on the matter and do something about it. Change will not come on it’s own, we need to be the change we want to see. The sooner we are, the sooner we’ll see things change.

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