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International Women’s Day 2022: Breaking the Bias

With this year’s International Women’s Day theme of Breaking the Bias, we’re all being encouraged to call out gender discrimination and inequality. 

Women may be exhausted experts in experiencing bias in our work lives, but many of us are less certain about how to go about effecting change. So, what are some of the ways of approaching gender bias in the workplace and building supportive cultures of work, now and in the future?

Cross-group mentorship

Mentorship is an effective tool in the workplace and something that is widely recognised to empower mentees who come from under-represented groups. 

This is backed up by 30% Club, an organisation that campaigns for gender parity in the business world. Its name and aim to see at least 30% female representation at both board and executive levels, come from research that suggests this number is the tipping point at which minority groups start to impact majority culture.

Its mentorship programme is a key pillar in their mission. Mentee benefits include building confidence and forging career development, which puts women in good positions to progress to senior levels. It is also a way to build safe and supportive relationships. In a similar manner to people disclosing disability status, which helps form disability-confident cultures, women who call out gender bias need to feel safe to do so. 

Initiatives like the 30% Club are working. The latest research on women in FTSE 100 boardroom roles shows that the number has risen to 39.1% – a considerable difference from the 12.5% figure ten years ago. Significant concerns remain on diversity in the boardroom, however. The Fawcett Society’s 2022 Sex and Power Index shows that women of colour are dramatically under-represented at the top of many business sectors and alarmingly, not represented at all in senior roles, for example, Supreme Court Justices, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and FTSE 100 CEOs. 

In the UK, only eight of the chief executives at the top 100 listed companies are women. So, while progress is being made in female Board numbers overall, increasing the number of women and diversity across senior roles and through leadership and senior management pipelines remains a priority.

2021 research from the Valuable 500 highlighted that no leaders or senior executives in FTSE 100 companies are known to have a disability.

Using mentorship to build allyship

Founding Steering Committee Member Gay Collins also explains how it’s a valuable tool for building allyship. 

She said: “Men who get it have become our biggest allies and supporters and have become really influential [in supporting our efforts].”

The 30% Club’s cross-company mentorship programme has 1600 participants. All its mentees are women, who collaborate with mentors who may be women or men. 

Gay added: “They are learning so much from their mentees and are coming back saying that they have realised so much that they never had to think about before.” 

Radical allyship posits that people in positions of privilege should work alongside less represented groups, and actively use their power to dismantle discrimination. 

It can often feel exhausting as a woman, or anyone in a group facing discrimination, to call it out and work against it alone. Allyship can be a key part of sharing the labour of cultivating lasting change. 

Brian Ballantyne, Co-Founder of Men for Inclusion, says men need to be involved in the conversation and action to avoid “echo chambers” and to bring about lasting change. 

Research from the University of Michigan also points towards women mentoring men as another effective cross-gender mentorship scenario that benefits the mentee and mentor. With a scarcity of women in leadership positions, it is a mentoring relationship that is harder to set up. However, its benefits for women mentors include taking an active role in shaping workplace culture and opening new avenues to forge their leadership skills, while mentees gain insight into allyship alongside other career benefits. It is yet another reason why improving gender diversity has benefits for everyone in the workplace.

Backlash against awareness

The same University of Michigan study discusses how, post-MeToo, the conversation around gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace is now at an all-time high. However, the backlash to this movement, the study claims, has led to women facing increased exclusion, with men displaying “paranoia” about working alongside women, seeking to “limit risk by avoiding interactions altogether.”

It’s one example of how calling out gender discrimination, bias, or harassment can have negative outcomes for the women who have worked to raise this awareness. 

I spoke with Fiona (not her real name) who is a female tech start-up co-founder. Tech is historically an incredibly male-dominated field. UK figures show that the tech workforce is made up of 18% women, a similar figure to finance, where the figure is 17%. International Women’s Day resources pinpoint the tech industry as a key area for improvement when it comes to forging equality.

Fiona explained that her public speaking on gender issues in tech had cost her business a valuable grant. She said that, although she couldn’t conclusively prove it, the grant was “voted on by the community, and they voiced dislike of my opinions and work on this.”

As well as public speaking, she’s involved in actively addressing gender parity in the tech organisations she works with. In meetings about improving gender diversity, she says: “[Men have] angrily cut me off to say diversity in my specific industry is not a problem, and we shouldn’t waste time talking about it.”

She added: “I am sick of the tax on women in tech of having to spend their energy on these conversations – these efforts are also unpaid and ultimately benefit a for-profit company – but this is obviously something I also cannot sit back on.”

Gay Collins also spoke about the backlash she navigated as a founding member of the 30% Club in 2010. “The media have been very encouraging and open to us as a pressure group and absolutely many CEOs have been supportive.”

However, she recalled how “there was definitely some deep disapproval from CEOs,” stemming from a sense that “there’s no need, this is our territory and women can’t do what we do.

“Another argument was there wasn’t the talent pool available. To which we said, there is, you just need to put in more research and work harder in the search for talent.”

Yet, as the team behind Men for Inclusion points out, “The business case is clear. Multiple studies show that companies that truly embrace diversity are more profitable, more innovative and creative, deliver better customer experience and weather tough times better. Diverse companies also have a more engaged and motivated workforce.”

Seeing positive change

Gay said that change has come in the fullness of time, with naysayers being proved wrong.

She added: “The reputational aspect was important, with CEOs realising they would have better acceptance in the community if they committed to these issues.”

She also pointed towards the crucial role communications teams play in shifting the culture and driving conversation around gender parity. This also happens to be a field in which women have historically been a larger part of the workforce. 

Fiona sees gender, and diversity more widely, as a key consideration in how she’s building her business from the ground up.

She said: “We try to ensure diversity is at the heart of everything we do. We offer pro bono work for people from underrepresented groups. We go out of our way to talk about diversity with our partners and collaborators, even if it’s at the risk of losing grants and relationships.”

Spotlight on the Tech sector

At the Inclusion in Tech Festival organised by the Tech Talent Charter and Beazley at the start of March 2022, they cited their 2021 research, which reported that 1 in 5 women are thinking of leaving the tech sector. 

One of the areas that needs attention and was discussed at the festival is lack of sponsorship. While mentoring is leading to progress, structured, industry-specific sponsorship of women and colleagues from under-represented groups is an area that can make a substantial difference in visibility and lead to a more inclusive environment for encouraging future roles and hires. There needs to be a clear and consistent career pathway to encourage progression to and success in the most senior roles.

Structure and embedding dedicated inclusion strategies and pathways into the business is vital in establishing change. The latest iResearch Services survey on sustainability and diversity in the tech sector flagged that only half of the 550 firms surveyed had a formal DEI strategy in place. An average of 20% stated that they have “an unwritten commitment”, demonstrating there is willing among the senior leadership surveyed, but not enough action to date. 

Could this be about to change? Many new initiatives are being launched and gaining momentum across the sector. It is encouraging to see tech d consultancy giants signing up to initiatives such as Action to Catalyze Tech (ACT), which encourages tech firms to engage in “bold, collective action by open-sourcing DEI best practices, encouraging collaboration on systemic solutions, and increasing accountability to drive change.”

Rachael Kinsella, Editor-in-Chief at iResearch Services, welcomes such initiatives and their role in bringing about change, commenting, “Some of the biggest names in the tech industry have shown their intentions by adopting the DEI recommendations in this influential report. It’s a testament to the power of thought leadership in facilitating change and should encourage many more to follow. We hope tangible and measurable actions will follow the commitments we are seeing emerge across key industries such as technology and financial services, so we will see real progress in the months and years ahead.” 

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