Over recent years significant progress has been made to increase gender equality at work. As of February 2022, female representation on boards in the FTSE 350 stands at an average of 37.6%. However, it is clear that much more needs to be done to uplift women in the workplace, level the playing field, and prevent discrimination.
This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is #BreakTheBias, encouraging everyone to take action to eliminate bias in their workplace, communities and schools. Here experts have shared five key focus areas for organisations looking to remove bias at work.
Level the investment playing field
Gender bias affects women at every stage of their careers, whether they’re working for a company or own their own business. The challenges facing female entrepreneurs is something Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, Founder and CEO of Insurtech, Tapoly, is all too aware of.
She explains: “I feel fortunate that as I run my own company, the challenges around gender bias aren’t quite so visible day-to-day. However, I am something of a rarity in this, and we won’t see an increase in women in entrepreneurship roles until change happens in the VC and investor space.”
“The British Business Bank found that solely female-founded companies receive less than 1% of total UK venture capital, while solely male founded companies get a full 89%. This is not only damaging to women’s progress in the workplace, but it’s bad for the economy too – the Rose Review found that £250 billion in new value could be added to the UK economy with a sustained and concerted effort to help women succeed as entrepreneurs.
“Clearly, investing in women brings a whole host of benefits, and so it’s in everyone’s interest to promote women in the industry,” she concludes.
Proactive menopause support is essential
As Lesley Cooper, management consultant and Founder of WorkingWell, highlights, If you reframe and relabel the symptoms of menopause into more traditional reasons for sickness absence, many workers would be taking the day off. Yet, these same symptoms make up the normal operating mode for the workers affected.
Lesley argues the more general shift towards conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace is helping with much of the heavy lifting of a mindset shift; however, there is still a stark gap between the increasing recognition of the significant impact of the menopause and subsequent organisational change.
“Traditionally, there has been a tendency to universalise one perspective, but progress is often made by starting with more general leadership and peer to peer conversations about the relationship between wellbeing and performance.
“Leaders and their teams should have physiologically safe spaces to share their experiences. When this is coupled with proactive education to the whole workforce on the symptoms and self-help strategies, employers have a much stronger foundation to build support programs for those struggling,” says Lesley.
Open cultures to call out discrimination
Leaders have a critical responsibility to foster a culture where women feel comfortable and empowered to challenge discriminatory remarks as they happen. However, history has shown that this has been far from the case.
“Looking back over my career, there were clues along the way that other people not only saw but factored in my gender into their business decision-making. Be it in smaller annual bonuses or being passed over for overseas assignments because of my motherhood.
“Instead of challenging, I sucked it up and tried to remain ‘resilient’. I now realise that my job wasn’t only to forge my way but to beat the path well enough for others too,” reflects Carmel Moore, Director of the One Moment Company.
Carmel says organisations should be proactively creating an open culture that encourages women to use their skills to create awareness, educate, and create change. By giving women the space and the confidence to say the very things that need to be heard, we can challenge long-standing stereotypes and discrimination.
Tackle Imposter syndrome head on
Whether you are the most experienced senior leader or someone newly promoted into line management, imposter syndrome often rears its head and convinces you you are not worthy of the new role. This is all too common for women in the workplace, who also have to tackle the systemic barriers to promotions and leadership.
Margo Manning, Founder of The Bute Group, argues that a considerable part of tackling the bias in the workplace comes from empowering women with the mindset that they are worth the investment. “When women leaders see no one else like them in the boardroom, it’s no wonder the imposter syndrome and ‘why me?’ thoughts set in,” she says.
Organisations should be proactively celebrating the in-role successes of all team members whilst reminding them of the unique value they bring, which was the reason for their appointment. “Imposter Syndrome does not go away overnight. Often it is ingrained from past negative workplaces. But it can be unpicked in a psychologically safe culture that provides dedicated space for their individual personal and career development,” says Margo.
Leaders must be flexible and forward-focused
Actively fighting bias requires flexible leaders who are always actively listening to their team, explains Karen Meager, organisational psychologist and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy.
“Good leaders listen to opinion and feedback. Feeling like they have a voice gives people the confidence that their views count – and this too gives them confidence that their leaders will deliver on policy changes. It’s about fostering and maintaining relationships that are focused on cooperation towards common goals and mutual respect,” she states.
A considerable part of building these mutually-trusting relationships is leaders admitting their DE&I and wellbeing provisions might not be up to standard, or bias still exists, even when the path to tackling this is not completely clear.
“At a time of uncertainty, people want clarity as well as guidance. It’s better to be open and upfront rather than evasive. People need to know where they stand, even if they don’t necessarily like what they hear right now.”
“Leaders need to be driven by long-term goals, not distracted by short term ‘quick wins’, current noise or irrelevant issues,” explains Karen. “Now more than ever, leaders have to fix onto a long term vision to take their people and organisations to a sustainable future, one without bias.”