Are we getting anywhere with gender equity?

International Women's Day is on March 8, and the theme for 2023 is #EmbraceEquity.  Fiona Hancock, a Director at Added Insight, reflects on her leadership journey, the challenges women continue to face in the workplace, and why she’s feeling optimistic about the progress we’ve made when it comes to gender equity.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" is a question we’re all asked when we’re younger. I didn’t have a clue back then what kind of work I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be a Mum.

Like many women, I've struggled with the tension between wanting to be a mother and building my career. My Master's thesis in fact focused on work-life balance, so it's been a dominant theme for me before I even started within the workforce. Twenty-five years and two teenage daughters later, I realise that there is no easy answer and certainly not a one size fits all solution. It's a constant balancing act and there is no one “right” answer for everyone.  As the mother of two girls, I have, over time, been able to shift my mindset from focusing on the compromises and conflict that come with being a mother with a full-time career, to the advantages that delivers my girls by seeing me embrace my ambitions and apply my capabilities in a field of work that I love.  I believe that to overcome the significant challenges we face in the world, we urgently need to embrace and leverage the strengths and unique talents of everyone. This requires us to #EmbraceEquityand adapt our mindsets, behaviours, and ways of learning, working, and living to enable everyone to lean into their own talents, passions, and aspirations.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the difference between Equality and Equity as “Equality means the state of being equal, and equity adds the element of justice or fairness; it’s possible that “equal” treatment does not produce “equity” when conditions and circumstances are very different.”  To me, #EmbraceEquity means leaning into and embracing our differences as significant sources of strength. It provides an important lens through which to view our workplaces and work structures.

Like many others, I never aspired to, or saw myself as a leader. I was happy as a technical expert and didn’t recognise or acknowledge leadership ambition in myself. I still don't see myself as a role model for women in leadership.  However, as a Director of Added Insight and an Organisational Psychologist I am inspired by my role as coach and mentor to my team as well as aiming to inspire my teenage daughters to identify their passions, to strive for, and actualise their potential.  Through 1:1 leadership coaching conversations, engagement with clients, and talking to women within my professional and informal network, I have seen first-hand the challenges women continue to face in the workplace, and how the distinction between Equality and Equity is such a critical one to register in order to drive inclusion and belonging in the workplace. While the focus in this article is women in the workplace, when we #EmbraceEquity we drive more equitable outcomes by creating opportunities for us all to craft the lives and the balance we aspire to have.

Confrontation and challenges

At Added Insight we’re experts in executive assessment and talent development which means we have a lot of open, and often personal conversations with women, many of whom are very transparent about the challenges they face.

It is important to preface my next comments with an acknowledgement that these challenges aren’t unique to women and aren’t the experience of all women.  However, with many of the women I’ve worked with I’ve observed a clear theme - the challenge of overcoming imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and maintaining self-assurance and confidence where a tendency to be highly self-critical can prevail. Conquering the internal self-talk and self-critique, over-reflecting on our own role in mistakes, what we could have done better, or if we’re up to a challenge or opportunity, are important cornerstones in these leadership conversations.  These aspects of how we see and talk to ourselves flow into the way we assert ourselves (or not), our confidence to independently make a decision or take a course of action, and the likelihood that we will push back to avoid burning ourselves out by trying to everything equally well and keep everyone happy.  

If we consider the challenge of asserting ourselves, how do we strike the right balance to ensure we do speak up and represent our views and interests without creating the risk that we are seen as aggressive. Research studies and experiential evidence suggest differential perceptions may be created when women and men assert themselves in similar ways.  Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In talks to the differences that stem from the subtle and often unconscious ways that we talk to girls and boys.  For instance, she says we don't typically call a boy bossy, but we will call a girl bossy. She writes: “Whether it is said directly or implied, girls get the message: Don't be bossy. Don't raise your hand too much. Keep your voice down. Don't lead."  The result is a minefield for many women when it comes to asserting themselves, both from an internal or personal perspective and as a result of the external perceptions when we do.

For some women, frustration, confrontation or the need to assert themselves can at times come with evident emotion.  I’ve spoken to women and female leaders who've told me that in confrontational situations or when they’re under significant stress, that pressure can sometimes emerge in the form of tears. That's not well received in the workplace even though it’s a perfectly normal and natural way of releasing stress. More importantly, despite how this may be perceived by others, it does not mean that these individuals are not coping or not up to the pressures of the role. This again highlights the need for us to shift mindsets and perceptions and to expand our understanding of individual differences, rejecting the view that there is something about these individuals that needs correcting or “fixing” in order for them to fit better with the way work is done.  How can we better challenge the historical profile of a “successful” or “high potential” leader? or the view that emotion has no place at work?

Historically, women have had to adapt to fit into the world of work, deal with the tension that creates, and cope with the lion’s share of the conflict between work and home. The 9 - 5, 40 hour work week is an example of an ingrained construct of our ways of working that was implemented at a time when the workforce was dominated by men without significant caring responsibilities at home. Recently there have been some welcome and vital shifts in the world of work with greater flexibility in the way the work week is structured for many. The 40-hour work week is no longer seen as a one-size-fits-all solution for modern families or individuals. While we still have a way to go, this shift is an important step toward creating greater equity not only in workforce participation, role opportunities, and pay equity, but in correcting on-going imbalances in the unpaid caring and domestic workload that continues to fall disproportionately on women.  Whether a two parent family working full-time with 80 or more collective hours spent working outside of the home, or an individual with responsibilities and other interests outside of paid work, the fixed 40 hour work week is an outdated framework.  To maximise productivity and support the health and wellbeing of the workforce, ongoing change and adaptation is required.

International Women's Day is an appropriate time to acknowledge the progress that has been made towards gender equity in organisations in recent years, while also recognising there’s still much work to be done.

The transition, or transformation in many cases, that organisations and individuals have gone through due to Covid has had a dramatic impact. The increased flexibility that comes with Working From Home (WFH) makes it easier for many to achieve a better balance between work and home.

This flexibility opens opportunities for women to take on roles they might not have considered, or may not have been considered for in the past — particularly leadership roles.

Added Insight’s 2022 research into the identification of high potential talent shows an equal number of men and women in our sample who aspire to a more senior or more complex role. Given there is also an equal number of men and women who were identified as ready for a higher level or more complex role, we question why women continue to be underrepresented at senior levels?  While career advancement opportunities, mentorship, and a commitment to work-life balance can contribute to a more inclusive workplace culture, we need to look more critically at our established ways of working, workplace structures, unconscious beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate the status quo.  

The benefits of gender equity in the corporate environment

Gender equity is not only a fundamental human right but it is a necessary shift to provide equitable opportunities for everyone. Companies that prioritise gender equity are more likely to have improved financial performance, better decision-making and improved employee engagement and retention.

A study by McKinsey & Company reaffirmed “the strong business case for both gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership.” It found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

Research from the Harvard Business Review shows that diverse teams are more likely to make better decisions. If you have a team of leaders who all think and act alike, you're missing out on different perspectives and ideas. By including diverse viewpoints and experiences, teams can more effectively evaluate options, identify potential risks, and develop solutions.

Companies that prioritise gender equity are also more likely to have engaged employees and lower turnover rates, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation. By creating an inclusive workplace culture where all employees feel valued and supported, organisations can increase employee satisfaction and loyalty.

As we celebrate International Women's Day let's recognise all the amazing people who have paved the way for gender equity. But let's also use this day to commit to making gender equity a reality for all. A lot done, a lot more to do.

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