08 Mar

3 Reasons we’re still talking about ‘that’ gender issue (and it’s almost 2020)!

By Jo Billing and Stella Voules

Editor credit: JOST & Co Marketing team: Kirsten Beriman and Bailey Aven
Photo credit: The “The Fearless Girl” sculpture by artist Kristen Visbal. Justin Lane/European PressPhoto Agency

We’ve all been pushing really hard for decades to get gender balance in the workplace right.  So much research and so many programs, awards, policies, committees, #metoo campaigns, movements… culminating in a lot of motion.  However, it seems at the end of the day, they haven’t really translated into substantive results.

As mothers of young primary school aged girls, this realisation can either lead to feeling despondent, or, feeling embattled and hope that the little bit we do adds to the velocity of trying to build a better world for all the young girls with hope in their eyes.

It was only last year, one of our young daughters asked to join an afterschool activity called Bricks for Kids, a robotics lego program.  Turns out she was the only girl who put her hand up and ended up in a class of 15 boys.  She lasted 2 terms, then asked to never go back.  The class initially had two instructors, one of each gender.  Then one day the female instructor stopped coming.  Neither the course organisers or the female instructor understood the criticality of her role in inspiring young girls to stay.  The old adage “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it” holds true in this case.

At JOST&Co we are doing our bit to help young women and aspiring girls navigate those initial formative steps. To make them want to push the boundaries, change the course of young girls of the future.  We’ve decided to partner with organisations like the Vic ICT for Women’s program Go Girl, Go for IT to help them on their journey.  We coach and mentor young women on a voluntary basis to share our experience and knowledge. We do what we can.

What we won’t do is create a list of gender equity objectives that are impractical and idealistic.  As we are articulately reminded(20) – “… real action in this area needs to involve a dramatic change to the system of work.  We still largely work in the same way that was set up at the start of the industrial revolution.”…I think we are pushing the proverbial uphill until we turn the system of work on its head. Everything else has largely been disrupted. It’s time to disrupt this.”.  We wholeheartedly agree.

So, we turned to the literature to see what our learned colleagues have reported. This is what we found: three clear themes around gender balance and why it’s ripe for disruption.

Theme 1 – Oops! We limited true leadership and power…

A throng of over-mentored but under-sponsored women

A lack of social capital (access to role models, career coaches, sponsors) creates barriers for women’s career progression (4).

Sponsorship is the critical component in driving gender balance. However, mentorship is being commonly mistaken with sponsorship. As such women are becoming over-mentored but under-sponsored.

Mentors provide guidance and support, whereas sponsors utilise their power to enhance the credibility, visibility and professional networks of their protégée’s (15). They publicly advocate for the protégé with regard to competitive assignments, leadership opportunities, and high-impact committee memberships systematically enhancing the protégé’s ability to gain promotion, facilitating stretch assignments, and as a consequence creating upward pressure in pay.

Improving gender balance begins at the top. Let’s have senior leaders more aware of their roles as sponsors and proactively supporting female talent, and organisations more proactive in nurturing sponsors and building their reputation.

Underrepresented women in critical power roles

Traditional gender segregation creates divergent occupational dominance by gender where women tend to focus obtaining professional but lower status roles such as nurse and teacher, whereas higher status positions tend to be occupied by men (6). This culminates in men and women being categorised into different social groups with unequal power.

Companies try to fix this problem by increasing the level of female leadership roles which are typically mid-level positions, also referred to as a “token female leader”(13). This improves the statistic by creating the illusion of more female leaders without actually solving the real problem.

True gender balance needs women to move into critical power roles such as Boards, national leaders of foundations, funders, CEOs, executives, senior managers, and others who drive CEO supported organisational change.

A pipeline full of women, yet not many females leading

Even in female-dominated organisations, women’s representation in higher managerial levels remains low, underlining the complex forces shaping female representation rates (4,11), our hospitals are a good example where it is critical to monitor the gender balance in the top tier roles (14).

Not many females leading, in spite of an equal ability to lead

There is a growing body of evidence that women’s leadership is as effective as men’s, in fact in some cases, more effective.  Recent research suggests female leaders are more transformational “Leadership now, more than in the past, appears to incorporate more feminine relational qualities, such as sensitivity, warmth, and understanding” (6)

Humans are tribal. If all leaders embrace more feminine leadership styles, over time, women would be perceived as less of a threat and become more welcomed into senior leadership roles.

Theme 2 – Sorry! Our culture made us do it…

Inherent bias in the way we do things around here

Organisational culture is a key component to the progress of gender balance and most recent efforts for improvement are seen in this space.  Workplace policies, procedures and practices have lacked organisational support for women, and there have been inadequate HR policies and practises supporting women (4).  This structural bias begins upon entry into the workforce through initial offers of lower-ranked positions, lower starting salaries, over-represented in part-time and casual work and smaller start-up packages. (15).

I’ve frequently wondered why only 4% of venture funding goes to women and how to change that” CEO, SheEO , October 2018

Eyes averted away from the pay gap

In a large number of the studies, even while controlling for variables that might legitimately explain a wage differential, there still remained an unexplained wage gap that could only be attributed to gender (7).

Despite the progression achieved by many organisations, the gender pay gap still exists. The pay disparity is a likely contributor to women leaning away from leadership opportunities. This has consequences on not only the individual but the business as well.

Pay disparity also has harmful future consequences, as a result of this cumulative effect of lifetime lower pay, females suffer during retirement needing to work long after retirement for financial reasons (2).

Gender balance efforts are not trumpeted and showcased

Does your company promote and communicate the support, programs and policies in place?   Employees often report they are unaware that access to support, programs and policies exist.

Visible demonstrations of female leadership will provide inspiration for broader support, and the conduit for younger women aspiring to critical power roles.

Theme 3 – Oh! We weren’t even conscious of the unconscious…

Unaware of the power of implicit gender bias

Cognitive schemas are frameworks developed at a young age that help us perceive, categorise and evaluate people and their actions, they are indispensable to our understanding of the world (7),  and become embedded into the way we think. Gender schemas are generalizations that help us explain our complex world.

In the workplace, they mould the social expectations of both men and women impacting the work deemed ‘acceptable’ for each gender and how their work is evaluated and rewarded. They severely impact the ability of women to enter and thrive in industries and areas that are mainly dominated by men, such as technology, law, medicine & academia. Gender schemas discount women’s achievements and women are required to meet a higher standard than men in order to attain the same level of professional success. (7)

Whilst you may think overt bias is less common today than in the past, implicit bias remains common across both men and women, and sets the tone throughout the organisation.

Not allowing potential to blossom and ignoring real barriers to entry

Do the women in your company believe in their ability to successfully perform?  Do they feel they belong and affiliate with the leadership team? Have you ever asked them? The answers to these two questions are the moderating drivers for women to attempt to persist at and progress in their careers (4,9).  As a result of gender schemas, women’s belief in their ability to be successful, to feel like they belong in leadership teams is often lower than men’s and impacts both their performance, and motivation.

Further challenges present themselves when the attitudes towards flexible working within the organisation are culturally unsupportive, less likely to be regarded by colleagues as devoted to their careers and the organisation, promoting a gap in social status between employees in organizations who access this benefit.  Parents also experience difficulties in being able to ‘juggle’ the demands of work and raising a family, and who still in this day and age tend to be women,  and will often either remain in less demanding roles or exit the workforce altogether.  Enter the rise of the gig economy.  Consequently, women tend to work on more regular tasks with less authority, inhibiting their career prospects of career advancement.

Not stamping out harassment and discrimination

Women are disproportionately affected by workplace harassment and discrimination which contributes to turnover (3).

Whilst some progress over the last decade has been made through education and training in workplaces, women still report instances of physical gender-based harassment and unwanted sexual advances and gender-based harassment such as offensive remarks, behaviours that result in a hostile environment, and being ignored or not being treated with respect. (19)

Zero tolerance is the solution.

Some final thoughts:

Three clear themes that define 10 signs that gender balance is being disrupted.  Sponsorship, owning critical power roles, grasping leadership opportunities, facing into and discussing the issues, breaking neural hardwiring and using a stick to deal with illegal and unethical behaviour is just the starting place.

The issue of organisational performance, and the balance needed by all groups to achieve it, needs to be redefined.  To a degree we do need to turn the system on its head, for the sake of our young and upcoming women.

It is also as simple as supporting women, it is about fairness, it is about recognition.

As one CEO told me, the goal does “not necessarily have to be 50/50 but should be closer to 50/50 than to 85/15.”


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