Let’s all challenge ourselves not to typecast people based on their gender or other characteristics.
In many ways, discrimination and attitudes to discrimination at work have changed a great deal over the past twenty years.
It’s no longer acceptable to pay men and women different salaries for the same job - though the gender pay gap is far from being closed when one looks across the whole organisation.
Similarly, it’s no longer acceptable to say or do sexist things: the workplace is expected to be a neutral environment where everyone can thrive and progress - though we also know that this is not always the case.
Changes in the law, the fact that women are more likely to have a degree than men, the fact that women typically achieve higher grades than men and the fact that more women pass entry-level aptitude tests in paid employment with flying colours than men, for instance, have led to a real appetite to hire more women. However, as women progress into senior roles, they report experiencing two new forms of discrimination - more subtle, less open, but still very detrimental:
- Tokenism: the perception, among their colleagues, that they have been promoted ‘just because’ they are women and not because they have the requisite skills; and
- Typecasting: the perception that women are mainly suitable for certain roles and are subsequently siloed into certain roles and not others.
I first heard about how widespread tokenism and typecasting were when I interviewed 23 of the most powerful, accomplished, incredible ethnic minority women in the country. These women had MBEs, OBEs, long strings of honorary doctorates, were MPs, Baronesses, Ladies, Gold Medallist Olympians, Partners in the most prestigious law and audit firms, CEOs of global charities: they couldn’t possibly have done more to demonstrate their worth and to justify their promotions to the top of their professions. And yet, every woman reported that they had to fight typecasting and tokenism.
It’s not just men who have these damaging attitudes. Women do too. So the biggest thing we can all do to increase the influence and impact of women is to double-check our assumptions and beliefs about what women can do and why they should be seen as equally suited to men for leadership roles.
In research Versiti did for one of the Big 4 audit firms, we found that both men and women share beliefs and assumptions that maintain the status quo and create roadblocks to gender equality. Here are five such beliefs or misapprehensions.
- Women, as well as men, think of diversity and inclusion primarily as a moral case, not as a commercial imperative. We do not always appreciate the business advantage that gender diversity gives to organisations. We don’t know the evidence that gender diverse teams make better decisions than male-only ones and that organisations with more women in the leadership team significantly outperform the ones led by male-dominated teams. So we find it harder to root for women.
- Women and men tend to underestimate the extent of structural discrimination - as opposed to individual prejudice - in the workplace and elsewhere. If we do not personally experience gender stereotypes, sexual innuendoes, avoidance, exclusion, verbal or physical abuse and other visible attitudes and behaviours by colleagues and bosses, then we are likely to assume that there is no discrimination. In fact, most discrimination is structural and invisible to the naked eye: it is embedded in processes, policies and other largely invisible ways of working. The radical power of the gender pay gap reporting has been to make structural discrimination visible to all.
- Women and men assume that D&I is an issue for HR, a matter of PR or a consideration of the CSR team - as opposed to a serious issue linked both to the bottom line of the organisation and to social justice for employees, customers, consumers and citizens. Unless we frame it for what it is, then we are less likely to be motivated to address it.
- Importantly, many of us also believe that positive action to recruit, retain and promote more women undermines meritocracy. Nobody ever makes the case that promoting only white men undermines meritocracy! How can broadening access to roles to more people who were previously excluded from career progression and increasing competition undermine meritocracy? It widens meritocracy. Indeed, it produces a much more genuine meritocracy by levelling the playing field and invited more people to take part in the game. Please let’s challenge this assumption every time it surfaces!
- Women and men also share the belief, implicitly, that fairness is about treating everyone the same. In fact, fairness is given to each person or each social group what they need so that they can achieve the same positive outcome. As a parent of two children, I don’t give every child the same Christmas present, or even necessarily presents of the same value. I give them presents that will suit their tastes and needs, that will develop each child in the best possible way so that they can reach their full potential. The analogy holds. Being fair needs to start by documenting the specific experiences, needs, aspirations, inequalities, pay gaps, promotion rates, etc in the workplace and then making special, tailored provisions to address these issues. In other words, specifically not treating everyone the same.
So if we want to increase the influence and impact of women at work, and help promote more women to the top, we all need to challenge ourselves and our assumptions.
We have to stop assuming that change will happen naturally because there are still more men called ‘Dave’ sitting on the boards of FTSE 250 than there are women…
We have not to stop thinking that ‘two wrongs do not make a right’ as though we were doing some ‘wrong’ by seeking positive action to address structural inequalities.
We have to make a private ‘note to self’ never to undermine a female (or ethnic minority, or disabled, or LGBT) colleague by assuming that ‘they only got the job because they are… X, Y or Z.’
We have to stop imagining that certain roles are ‘for men’ and others are ‘for women’ as though women and men had fixed talents and interests as opposed to current work roles being the outcomes of social norms, expectations from parents and schools, legal provisions and so on.
We have to challenge ourselves not to typecast women into certain roles (such as HR, marketing, nursing) and miss out on huge talent and on the distinctive contributions women could make to IT, accountancy, engineering, architecture, the law, etc.
Let’s all challenge ourselves not to typecast people based on their gender or other characteristics. Let’s make a promise to ourselves never to undermine a colleague by failing to challenge people around us who say that a woman only got the job ‘because she’s a woman’.