Why changing perceptions is the key to gender equality

In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed, prohibiting any gender bias in how men and women were paid or treated at work. Yet, despite this, more than four decades later the pay gap in the UK between male and female full-time workers is still 13.9%.

Why changing perceptions is the key to gender equality

There’s no doubt about it: the UK’s progress towards gender equality has been, and continues to be, slow. This has had a huge impact on the careers landscape. Whether it’s the imbalance in female remuneration for doing the same jobs as men, or the lack of female representation on leadership teams or directors boards, or the common stereotyping of roles or industries as more suited to males, diversity in the workplace remains a vital issue.

This really shouldn’t be the case in 2016. Equal pay is not only the right thing to do morally and socially, but reams of research have confirmed that it’s better for business. A McKinsey study showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry averages.

credit_wocintech_chat_3 Similarly, a Credit Suisse report concluded that companies with more women in the boardroom bring better returns and outperform on the stock market. And the Royal Bank of Scotland estimated last year that increasing female entrepreneurship in the UK could add £60 billion to the economy.

As this compelling data stacks up, there can be little doubt that gender diversity and social equality are good for all organisations. The macroeconomic impacts are huge as well, and the reason why countries have introduced legally implementing diversity quotas.

Today the issue isn’t being pushed forward using more statistics or numbers. The results are in, and the verdict is clear. We’re now dealing with a challenge that is much more subtle: one based on engrained beliefs, learned behaviours and social biases, which, as we all know, are hard to recognise and even harder to change with facts and figures alone.

Perception or misconception?

Changing perceptions about women’s abilities in the workplace is a stubborn challenge to address. Even if we don’t realise it, many of us carry preconceived ideas and unconscious biases about how women “should” act in business, and in life. The media provides a barrage of lessons for women on how to dress, how to talk, how not to offend, how to please others, how to be liked. And men also suffer from the same social pressures to behave according to their traditional social norms.

LeanIn.org and McKinsey recently released a report that looked at why, in corporate America, women lag behind men in progressing their careers, right from the beginning. Its findings could be applied to almost any industry in any country. One of the key statistics found that women who negotiate their pay and/or job roles are 67% more likely to receive feedback that their approach is “too aggressive” or “bossy” than women who don’t. Additionally, and perhaps not surprisingly, they’re more likely to receive this feedback than men who behave the same way.

Is it any wonder then, to hear that women who are assertive, who strive for both their own and their team’s success, are often punished in the workplace? While the causes holding women back in the workplace are complex, there’s no doubt that a major block to progress are these perceptions about how women should and should not behave.

Men play a vital role here in ensuring that we all become fully aware of our behaviours, and can move our work teams towards new, more respectful and fair behaviours. The Women in the Workplace 2016 study has unfortunately highlighted a growing cultural challenge with the lack of conviction and engagement from senior male board members on gender issues. It’s often assumed that, in the 21st century, male colleagues will automatically understand and sympathise with the challenges women face in the workplace.

But, not unreasonably, it’s often hard for men to recognise these difficulties as they haven’t gone through them themselves. Frequently it is the first-hand experience of a loved one – a partner, sister or daughter – that helps put these issues into relief. To add to this, the social expectation that equality and diversity are “women’s issues” championed best by female members of the team, and rarely by senior male leaders, is off-putting for many male equality and diversity champions. A society that doesn’t allow the space for men to stand for feminism, equality and diversity, and doesn’t provide women equal opportunities to participate in and lead business, will suffer the economic consequences.

Focus on culture, not on numbers

Instead of simply ticking boxes to achieve diversity quota targets, organisations need to delve deeper into the culture of their workplaces and identify male and female ambassadors for gender equality. To find these ambassadors, male employees need to be encouraged and supported into fully understanding and addressing the issues.

Why not approach this like we do our customers or competitors? In the world of business, we spend thousands of hours every year – and considerable amounts of money – trying to gain a thorough understanding of our customers so we can tailor our approach and offer relevant services to them. We aim to understand their challenges, their demands and their expectations so that we can satisfy them with a product they want to buy and recommend to their friends. What if we took a fraction of the time it takes to understand our competitors, or our target customers, to understand our talent base close to home; to understand their experiences and attempt to unlock all the hidden and unrecognised value they drive in business?

Balance the scales by balancing the responsibility

The next step towards workplace equality is to encourage informed and understanding male voices to join the fight. Hundreds of studies clearly prove the positives of and necessity for a balanced workforce, and it’s time for the corporate world to broaden the range of champions for gender diversity. They must include those who might not have thought it their place, but could have the most influence on tipping the corporate scales towards balance.

Images: WOCinTech

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