Leadership

Gender bias in everyday interactions

We often share examples - in our blogs and leader workshops -  of how unconscious bias and gender stereotypes impact recruitment choices and general business decisions. In this blog, we take a look at the impact on meeting interactions, through an example that will be familiar to many of us.

When there's only one woman in a meeting, it's not uncommon to hear a male leader say, 'I'd better not say something crass here because (insert woman's name) is in the room.' Sometimes a leader will apologise to the woman for swearing. 

We know leaders generally mean well when they make these comments. They've probably heard it themselves many times in their careers and consider it nothing more than light-hearted banter.

But the comments can have a negative impact, because the person singled out feels uncomfortable, not part of the in-group. And it reinforces the stereotype that men and women are different and should interact in certain ways. Those stereotypes actually perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace.

We were recently asked by a female leader how best to respond in these situations, and suggested she might try saying something like this after the meeting:

"I know you mean well, but it’s uncomfortable for me when you single me out with the comment ‘I don’t want to say something crass because (insert name's) here’. It reinforces stereotypes about how men and women should interact, and that's not helpful for gender equality at work. I’d prefer we use language that's respectful of each other, and that'll help all of us work better together."

Each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity.

This is along the lines of the golden rules of giving feedback effectively: ‘When you … I feel … I’d prefer … the impact is …’

Some people will think this is political correctness taken to extremes, but eliminating everyday sexism is a commitment by male business leaders of some of our biggest organisations in Australia.

"We have to get better at responding to behaviour that is unhelpful and excludes people," their recent report 'We Set the Tone' says. "And we need to own what we say and take full responsibility for the consequences of our words and conduct. The same goes for our silence and inaction."

There's many outstanding recommendations in the report from the Male Champions of Change. One really resonated when we shared it recently with the LinkedIn community: reframe a discussion when an employee or candidate is assessed as ‘too’ anything – ‘too bossy’, ‘too soft’. ‘too emotional’.

It's not easy, but each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity and gender equality in particular.

We'd love to hear other ideas or ways to frame these types of conversations. 

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Flexing your approach to flexible work arrangements

Three factors distinguish leading workplaces committed to supporting flexible work practices.

Many companies are working hard to normalise flexible working, as more and more Australians use technology to work in an agile and innovative way. Telstra, PwC, Origin Energy, and ANZ among others promote ‘all roles flex’ to shake long-held assumptions that jobs need to be full-time and based at an office or company site.

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Numerous research studies show a markedly positive impact on productivity and employee engagement when companies offer flexible work arrangements. An IBM Survey of 675 CIOs and IT managers of large enterprises across multiple industries in Australia, China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States found that on average, those taking action to create a more flexible workplace reported 20%+ improvements in productivity and cost saving.

Employees are more likely to recommend their company as a place to work when they work in companies where flexible work practices are widely used.

For companies that are developing or refreshing their approach to flexible work arrangements, we've found a few key principles make a big difference to acceptance and utilisation of flexibility among the hundreds of client firms we've supported on their diversity journey. 

Three principles can be readily applied across different industries and types of workplaces:

1. ‘Flexibility’ is defined broadly.

It extends to how, when, and where employees work. Arrangements include formal options such as job-sharing or part-time work, changes to start and finish times. Arrangements also include informal, ad-hoc flexibility - usually the most requested type of flexibility - to meet short term needs, and most of these are agreed verbally or via email between the employee and their manager.

2. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration the needs of the business, the team, and any potential impact to clients/customers.

Some roles, by the inherent nature of their tasks, lend themselves to less flexibility. That said, leading firms encourage managers to carefully consider all requests as part of a ‘can-do’ flexibility mind-set, and provide ‘reasonable business grounds’ for any requests declined. In a number of companies, managers who intend to decline requests have to seek approval from Human Resources – an ‘if not, why not’ measure that challenges traditional (albeit surprisingly resilient) assumptions that flexibility is ‘too complicated’ or will ‘set a precedent where everyone will want it’.

3. Decisions are ‘reason neutral’.

This important principle recognises employees have different needs at different times in their lives. Some need flexibility to juggle caring responsibilities, others may want flexibility to pursue a hobby or additional study, for example.

The ‘reason-neutral’ approach also tackles the prevailing bias that flexibility is okay for working mothers, but less so for fathers. While the percentage of fathers using flexible working hours to look after young children has nearly doubled to 30 per cent since 1996), men are twice as likely as women to have requests for flexible hours rejected. A Bain & Co/Chief Executive Women study of more than 1,000 employees across Australian workplaces last year found approximately 60% of men are working, have or want to work flexibly, but there’s still a lack of senior support.

 

There are many other principles adopted by leading firms outline in our ‘Guiding Principles for effective flexible work practices’. Please email us if you’d like a copy.

Diversity Partners has developed comprehensive toolkits that cover guiding principles, tip sheets, and a four-step framework guiding managers and employees through the process of applying for, and reviewing, flexible work arrangements. We draw on best practices, and customise the toolkits to your business.

We also facilitate 'Making Flexibility Work for Everyone' workshops to help organisations entrench flexible working successfully. We'd love to hear from you if you'd like to talk through your organisation's flexibility strategy, education or policies.