5 Actions Men Can Take To Support Gender Equality

Men and women equality.jpg

I've had a few amazing men leaders through my career who pushed me and challenged what I thought I could have done at the time. The ones I really got along with didn't condescend or patronise. They knew that women were pushed so far back that to expect them to emerge as influential leaders overnight was not going to happen. They took a more practical approach and addressed the issues that arose from a lack of female role models and opportunities, and what that did to women's leadership skills, not to mention, their confidence.

I never thought about it in these terms back then, but they were great examples of Inclusive Leaders. I was grateful that I had mentors who looked out for me and revealed to me my own potential. So, through my own experience, I am a strong advocate of men's role in cultivating gender equality. It also makes organisational sense considering women hold an average of just 21 per cent of senior management roles and only 9 per cent of CEO jobs globally. In Australia, women made up 16.3% of CEO positions in 2015-2016. The number of women in executive leadership, despite focused and wide-spread gender equality policies and goals, are actually declining and not substantially increasing. This is in the face of almost an equal number of women graduates coming out of colleges and making a substantial percentage of entry level jobs across industries.

Any gender diversity initiative that only involves women and does not consider the crucial ingredient of men as mentors and allies, is likely to fail and not have long-term positive shifts. It also discourages the critical role of Inclusive Leadership.

Here's a shout out to men who might want to contribute to seeing their wives, sisters, daughters and female co-workers have a fair go at work, but don't know how they can make a difference.

Sharing 5 ways that you can contribute and be a man who stands for equality and fairness.

Action 1: Monitor for Manterruptions in your meetings

Manterruption is term for men who interrupt women and then complete their ideas as if they came up with it, or override them with their own ideas. A well established Hollywood script writer had a team of men and women who worked with him on movie scripts. At some point, a few frustrated and tired women came up to him and said, 'next time we are in a meeting, notice how many times we are interrupted and our ideas taken over by one of the men'. The head script writer was really surprised. He hadn't noticed a thing. Next meeting he started to focus on how true this complaint from his women writers was. The women on his team were rarely able to finish their sentences or share their ideas completely, they were constantly manterrupted by the men on the team. He took one simple step to set this right. Next meeting, everyone got 2 mins to share their ideas without being interrupted, so he could understand them and respond to their ideas. Are women being manterrupted around you and in your team? Is there something you could do, so everyone could have their say?

Action 2: Amplify Women Around You

Amplify is a term that came about during the Obama administration in the US. Women in administration realised how hard it was to be heard above their powerful male colleagues. So they began to hammer in their ideas by repeating them and giving credit to the woman who came up with it and was ignored during a meeting. How simple, unobtrusive and brilliant. So next time a woman colleague gets ignored as if she never spoke, repeat her point and draw attention to it and to her ideas. When you do that, two things happen. The woman in question realises that you stand for equality and fairness, and hence, are likely a trustworthy colleague or leader. This is useful because both men and women can do with trustworthy allies in their corner. Second, if you become an amplifier to your women co-workers, you are sure to have someone who has your back, especially, if you aren't around to defend yourself. Whom can you amplify around you?

Action 3: Ask coaching questions

There is a lot said about coaching women to help them overcome systemic and cultural barriers to getting ahead in their careers. The true spirit of coaching is in exploration and enquiry. So let's ask more questions. Begin with asking the women you lead in your team - How are you doing in the team? What's working for you? What's not working for you? How may I help? What organisational stuff is getting in your way that I don't know about? What ideas do you have? How are team meetings going for you? What support do you need that is missing right now? Often, cultures socialise women to not ask and not share unless pushed to say things that aren't working for them. While most of us learn to be assertive the hard way, we are all at different stages of our influence. It helps when a leader expressly asks to hear about challenges and barriers to progress. Who do you think is being left behind in your team?

Action 4: Become great at spotting Mansplaining

Google throws up a definition of Mansplaining if you searched for it. It's when men begin explaining something to a woman as if she doesn't know or can't possibly know anything about it. This is when the woman in question might be an expert in that field. Here's an example, men routinely explained how to place bets and how horse racing worked to a woman who was employed at the race course for ten years and was the one taking the bets. It's not a crime to explain things, but what's the point if our knowledge is not really needed by that person. If you've caught yourself doing this then turn it around. If you find a woman who is an expert at something, ask her a few meaningful questions. You will likely get to know more about something you care about too, and will have an opportunity to share what you know as well. In short, have more conversations and use it as a networking opportunity. In the process, you might become an expert at spotting men on your team mansplaining, so you can coach them to be more respectful colleagues to their female team members. Are there women around you who aren't being given due credit for their expertise and experience?

Action 5: Volunteer to be a mentor to women leaders

If you find yourself in a leadership position where you can be a mentor to someone coming up the ladder, then think about putting your hand up. Think about doing it specifically for a woman leader who needs a mentor and an advocate. Research has found that gender diversity initiatives that don't involve men are counter productive. On the other hand, when men get involved with mentoring women, they understand up close and personal how tough it is for women to break through systemic and cultural issues that push them back, especially, when they are absolutely ready to take the next step forward. It's a human dynamic that works in everyone's favour -when you are batting for someone's progress, you can't but help empathise with them and see challenges through their eyes. If your organisation has goals to promote more women, consider being an ally. Is there a woman you know who might be in need of mentoring and support and is ready to take up the next challenge?

Men are powerful allies to gender diversity goals. Your contribution makes a difference to the women you know and to your own leadership influence. It is in men and women's leadership interest to be Inclusive Leaders. It's not a question of if we need to work together to progress socially and economically, it's about how quickly can we create that reality for all of us. Everyone wins when we progress together instead of at the expense of one of us.

#GenderEquality #GenderDiversity #InclusiveLeadership #inclusion #diversity #MaleLeaders

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Is It Time To Do Away With Unconscious Bias Training?


In US alone, the Diversity & Inclusion spend is in excess of $8 billion. You heard that right, I did say billion, and no, that wasn't a typo. Most countries are investing millions of dollars in gender diversity and unconscious bias training efforts. Also, in hiring D&I specialists to head newly formed teams, so they can level the playing field for women and minorities. There are compelling reasons of persistent inequality and systemic bias that drive these astronomical investments.

When you throw this much money at a problem, you expect to see the situation turn around. It better, you'd say. Yet, the results after a decade of focus by major global corporations on D&I efforts are not as remarkable as one would hope to see.

Do we have no good news at all? We do, in fact. For example, the latest Gender Diversity Progress Report released on International Women's Day 2017 confirms that the AICD's target of 30% women on ASX 200 boards is on track to be met by the end of 2018. I could quote more examples. The thing is, they are far fewer than you might expect given the resources and industry weight behind D&I efforts over the years.

The world of business has a propensity to look for a quick and doable solution to prickly issues. In this case, unconscious bias training is one of the most popular options to address bias, stereotyping and prejudice inside organisations that stall diversity efforts.

The billion dollar question - does unconscious bias training help reduce bias within teams and organisational cultures?

There’s certainly been an “explosion” in the need for awareness about unconscious bias, says Diversity Council Australia CEO, Lisa Annese. Organisations, looking to improve diversity know that there’s no simple solution and that tackling unconscious bias is one tool of many that can help, she says. “You’ve got to then take a broader approach in diversity, because people need to have a reason to change. Just understanding your unconscious biases and how they play out isn’t enough."

So, where are we at with efforts to reduce bias at work?

*In one of the most comprehensive studies, researchers looked at more than three decades of data on diversity initiatives at hundreds of companies across the U.S. to determine their impact.

Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, one of the researchers who spearheaded that study, shared the outcomes. To their surprise, the researchers found that it was hard to say, if after three decades of D&I programs, there was any measurable change, one way or another.

The researchers found a clear pattern in the data, one of them was to do with programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations). These were not followed by increases in diversity.(*source: Fast Company. Frank Dobbin, 'Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies')

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski (Inclusion & Diversity Specialists) write a fabulous critique based on years of experience of having seen numerous designs and content of debiasing initiatives and programs. One of the telling parts of this article says, "Typically an organisation's request is like this: “We would like to have a 1 to 3 hour session that is entertaining, eye-opening, convincing, based on science but not with scientific content, and that does not put the leaders and employees on the spot — they just need to be more aware of bias.” "The other tendency is a fatigue around unconscious bias awareness (similar to the tendency of gender fatigue found in many organisations). Say the words “unconscious bias” and many people now roll their eyes."

So how are we doing with unconscious bias training? It appears as if we are stuck in the middle of entertaining, not so scientific, programs and ones that do have a lot of evidence and leave employees little chance to escape, entertaining or not. Most take a deep breath as they are sent in for mandatory training by many large organisations. Giants of tech, accounting and retail have mandatory debiasing programs. Even if you have a smart name for them, at the end of the day the message is clear - you are biased and you need to fix this.

A few things have gone wrong with unconscious bias training. I am listing the key ones that are research based outcomes, and a few that I intuitively feel would make most employees disengage.

#1 Mandatory training

If you've done psychology 101 as part of any stream of education you were in, you'd know this - human beings don't respond well to control or coercion. First, it makes people anxious that they are being fixed because they are broken and that they can no longer be themselves. In fact, they will likely be judged harshly for having attended a training and still found transgressing. Second, and this is a more dangerous kind of damage - that of reinforcing feelings of privilege, resentment and revengefulness towards those who seem to have foisted such trainings upon us - women and minorities. Enough has been said about the infamous 10 page Google diversity manifesto, so I won't go into that, but it seems eerily close to the kind of counterproductive outcome researchers have been warning us about.

#2 Focus on managers

The moment we single out a demographic within an organisation, we are saying, you have something to do with where we are and how this needs to change. Now if you've spent millions to train all 3000 managers in your organisation, you'd want to see results and fast. When the message of debiasing is not carefully crafted in an inclusive and shared environment, it can quickly generate feelings of hostility and resentment. Managers might mistake attention on them as being blamed for not upholding D&I expectations, that somehow, a biased culture is their fault. They are the bad people. When people feel they are being blamed, they have an expected reaction, they become defensive. That's not the bedrock for positive post training outcomes. Most such trainings lack consistent data that behaviour changes continued long after the training.

#3 Naming it unconscious bias or bias awareness training

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski share that there is a risk in naming a training as such because it's going to trigger connotations/associations in the unconscious mind that activates counterproductive feelings, like, ‘I am going to be fixed’ (anxiety) or ‘I’ll lose privilege, status, and power.’ (loss-aversion bias) or 'Now I’ll get them and show them how wrong they are.’ (revenge). Framing the effort to reduce or mitigate bias is important. It's still uncommon to find unconscious bias training as an embedded part of leadership programs or performance development training programs. The meaning we attach to words changes how we feel about the overall effort. Even if researchers hadn't told us this, you might agree, this is communication basics, and we've known it all along.

#4 The training is done out of context

Another important piece of research is that when you craft training content that is disconnected with actual work scenarios, it misses the mark. We knew this, too.Very often, unconscious bias training is outsourced by D&I teams. Most programs begin with one of these two popular slides - we are bombarded by millions of bits of data, so we use heuristics or short cuts to make sense of our world, in a nutshell, we use bias to function. The other is about legal obligations and negative motivators, and how being biased can get companies sued. I'd be scared for sure, but might not go out feeling collaborative. Realistically speaking, not all consultants might be willing to build customised content for each client, and even if they did, the organisation might be unwilling to foot the bill. Debiasing efforts are more likely to show positive outcomes when they emerge from within the organisation and are full of context and language that is already familiar to employees.

#5 'High prevalence of unconscious bias' approach

Human beings are curious creatures, so when you tell them that there is high prevalence of a behaviour, in the hope that they will reduce that behaviour, they do the opposite. There is evidence to prove that our brains tend to repeat behaviours that we see as already prevalent. We want to be part of the majority, not the minority. We reason, if so many people are already doing something, it wouldn't hurt if I did just a little bit of it, too. We want to do what everyone else is doing, not what very few are doing. Most unconscious bias trainings emphasise how bias is all pervasive, that we are all biased and that we need to watch for it and reduce it. Guess what, we don't. Most employees go out of the program with an unconscious message to repeat biased behaviours instead of reducing them. Good intentions gone awry, you could say.

#6 We are all responsible, so no one is accountable

The term unconscious is a tricky one. It signifies behaviours we are not conscious of, and hence, can't possibly be aware of or held responsible for. In essence, I am a passive actor in being biased. How do you catch bias when you don't even know you are biased and what about exactly? So, the easy way out is to relinquish personal responsibility and not do anything about it. I find it really risky to unwittingly suggest to a bunch of employees that they didn't do anything that was prejudiced or even bigoted, in fact, they aren't even in control. Forces out of their control made them behave in ways that were unfair to others and put them down. You can see how this is not going down a good path. Debiasing efforts need to strike a delicate balance between why we aren't bad people for being biased, but that we are responsible to behave in a fair and respectful manner. Tough one, I say.

#7 Too much focus on people, too little on processes

Even if D&I teams have the best intentions to help reduce bias within their workforce, they can't avoid the hard part of recognising that the organisation has systemic issues. Bias does not flourish for no reason and without support. Crucial processes such as performance reviews, monetary rewards, promotions, task force selections, overseas assignments and recruitment have evolved over time to reflect the sum total of its workforce and leadership beliefs. To assume that all of these processes are fair and square because well laid out policies say so, is being naive. Debiasing is very tough, if not impossible, to accomplish without focusing on changing processes that in subtle, and not so subtle ways, push back on those who are underrepresented. If we are to change behaviour, we might as well start with the processes.

I intend to write more on unconscious bias training, especially, what can be done to make it a more fruitful effort perhaps. For now, hopefully, this is thought-provoking. I am looking forward to hearing how your experience has been, do add to the conversation if you find the time.

#unconsciousbias #bias #inclusion #diversity #InclusiveLeadership

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