This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, whether that be the bias of stereotype, discrimination or self-sabotaging beliefs. There are many unseen barriers which serve as stumbling blocks in the ascension of women into senior leadership, some of which are personal and other organisational. Self-limiting bias are self-created and ingrained beliefs which a person may have nurtured for many years and becomes part of the internal dialogue of the person.
As a female leader and leadership development coach, my experience of working with other women highlights the fact that many of the challenges faced by women in the workplace, irrespective of the sector. are very similar, although some sectors are more so than others. Often times women play the role of orchestrator in family life acting like the machinery that makes everything happen, and whilst doing so they also have to balance the demands of their career. This sometimes put women in a precarious position of having to choose between these two important aspects of their identity.
Several pieces of research have established the many benefits of gender diversity for organisations, hence organisations need to be more proactive if they are to harness the benefits of having more women in the workplace; creating an inclusive environment, having the leadership team on board and continuously embracing a learning culture where bias is challenged and working towards eradicating it.
If organisations are to improve representation of women at all levels these five biases must be booted out. The first four biases identified below must be addressed at the organisational level, while the last one can be addressed at personal level with external support.
Gender bias in leadership
Many organisations openly state their commitment to gender diversity by combatting gender bias in the pipeline, however there is clear absence of gender parity when developing a leadership pipeline. When women do not have access to the same development opportunities as their male counterpart, this causes career stagnation and even when they do their likelihood of succeeding is stunted.
What is evident is that there is more rhetoric than action when it comes to supporting women into leadership. Women receive less support and a higher level of stress when transitioning into a leadership position. These can be alleviated through leadership mentorship or a buddy system which serves as a support mechanism to ease the transition and ensure success of women in new roles.
Overlooked for promotion
A groundswell of research has been conducted which exposes the bias associated with women being overlooked for promotion. A study conducted by a Yale professor concluded that women are not promoted because their managers underestimate their potential despite women consistently achieving higher performance ratings than men, they were incorrectly judged as having less leadership potential. It is as equally a stark picture for women with children.
It is not uncommon for organisations to be gender balanced or close to it at entry level but this number significantly reduces as you get closer to the top, this drop-off of women has been attributed to gender disparities in promotion rates, not gender differences in hiring or retention. To address gender imbalance, organisations can apply the Gender Proportionality Principle (GPP) which states that “a given level in an organisation should aim to reflect the gender composition of the level immediately below it.” GPP can be used to achieve sustainable significant improvement in achieving gender balance at all levels of any organisation.
Zero sum mentality
Another bias we must banish to achieve gender parity in leadership is zero sum mentality. This bias manifests in workplaces when male employees nurture the belief that they must sacrifice their resources or stature for women to get ahead.
Men are needed as allies to achieve gender equity but we must first eradicate zero sum thinking. Organisations can do this by amplifying the financial benefits of achieving gender equity for the company; connect diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measurement to performance reviews of leaders as a way of making them accountable, upskill leader’s knowledge on gender diversity through development activities, promote cross-gender professional relationships and integrate DEI initiatives interventions into core business outcomes.
Persistence of gender bias
Many research evidence alludes to the persistence gender bias in organisations and society at large, however what is more surprising is that organisations with balanced or female dominated workplaces are not immune to this problem. “Bias is built into the system and continues to operate even when more women than men are present.” Women still experience a plethora of biases such as constrained communication, lack of acknowledgement of their contributions, lack of access to mentors and sponsors and feeling the need to curtail their aspirations and ambitions due to personal circumstances.
Leadership identity shift
Whilst some organisations make gender diversity a priority by setting aspirational goals for ensuring women have a mix of skills and competencies and support through mentoring and training, much of these efforts do not translate into women succeeding in leadership roles. Having the right skills and competencies must be complemented with a supportive environment which supports a woman’s leadership motivation and celebrates her efforts even if she falls short in some areas. Women more than men struggle with embracing their leadership identity by internalising their leadership identity.
Leaders can create gender-equitable practices and environments by working on removing these biases highlighted above. Managers, leaders and organisations must demonstrate their commitment to moving the dial on inclusion by assuming a strategic approach to dismantling the challenges of gender inequality and adopting a data driven approach to diversity. One of the ways leaders can show their commitment and motivation for inclusion is by getting real with DEI, this can be achieved by setting DEI targets which are integrated into organisational strategy and attached to the KPIs of senior executives as a way of measuring progress.
As a Black female academic, my pledge is to support UK higher education institutions to build a strong pipeline of Black academics and to increase representation at the most senior level in academia.
Dr Jummy Okoya is a multisector leadership development and positive Psychology consultant focusing on EDI & Wellbeing with more than two decades’ experience. A co-programme lead at Said Business School and the Chair of the Women’s Network at UEL, she was listed among top 50 inspirational black women in the UK in 2019.
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