“Build back better”: Thinking Differently

Blocks needed to build back better

This is the second blog in a series of three, exploring the opportunity that we have to build back better for women at work. 

The first blog explored the unique confluence of events that has created this opportunity to build back better.  This second blog questions what we might need to let go of, in order to be open to change.  And the third will examine what we might do, in order to seize the opportunity to radically shift gender equity.

The need to think differently

All journeys of change require a shift – and most often that is a shift in thinking, that can then drive a shift in behaviour.  But what shifts in thinking do we need in order to seize the opportunity to build back better? Then we can create a radical step change for women at work.  Let us share our suggestions with you:

Stay uncomfortable with disorder

If the first stage in any journey of change is order – making sense of where and how we are right now, then the second stage is disorder. Disorder is concerned with stepping into the unknown, accepting the challenge to lift stones, thinking differently, and being bold.

It takes courage to stay in the phase of disorder. It’s uncomfortable to unravel decades of ways we have been taught to think and behave, both towards and about gender equity. That’s because disorder can cause our threat and overwhelm emotional systems to kick-in. Our social safety and reward emotional systems can conversely be suppressed.

In simple terms, as we go about work (and life), our emotional systems are frequently being activated or de-activated. Starting to think differently about gender and challenge outdated or taken for granted practices, causes cues to be generated. As these cues are interpreted by our brain, different emotional systems are recruited.

For example, our social safety system is only activated when our brain can interpret a cue to mean that we are safe, loved, fulfilled, protected, or otherwise part of a tribe; it tells us it’s safe to relax. Leaders taking a transformative approach to women in the workplace face the danger of being openly ostracised by colleagues or other leaders. There may be few opportunities to relax. So finding other like-minded colleagues to work with us, tell us they value our work or support us, is critical for us to thrive – otherwise it’s likely we will stop making change and drop back to the safety of the in-group.

  • Acknowledge that radical change will feel uncomfortable. Make space for the thoughts and feelings (as they won’t go away) and focus on what it is you need to do.
  • Find like-minded colleagues who will support you and help you to build a coalition of leaders, willing to make changes
  • Take small incremental steps towards shifting the thinking on gender equity. Avoid the pull of trying to solve everything in one go.

Accept the need for complexity

It’s very easy to think there is a simple solution to building back better gender equity at work. But beware the trap of complexity bias.

When we see a situation from a lens of complexity bias, we prefer a simple explanation, even if it’s false, to a complex truth.

Take the view that the COVID-induced reduction in women’s economic participation is largely “because women take the burden of caring responsibilities.” There is definitely some truth in that, but it doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of why women’s employment has been so badly hit. And it therefore doesn’t provide the single clue as to how to rectify this. Shifting the burden of care work more equally is no panacea. Yes, women do still carry (and often choose to carry) the burden of emotional labour. But it’s one of a complex web of reasons underneath the current COVID facilitated economic shift.

That’s because one woman does not represent all women.

Complexity bias means that we’d rather stick with our simple solution, even if it’s false, than have to grapple with information that feels complex and burdening to us.

  • Do your research – What are the all the facts? Are you missing anything? What else might contribute to the issue?
  • Spot if you are feeling overwhelmed with information and reaching for the simple solution.
  • Break information down into small manageable chunks.
  • Test your idea with a variety of people with different views and experiences.

Look beyond gender

In the work we do at Becoming, we are clear that women’s life and career journeys are often, for lots of reasons often outside their control, different to those of men. And conversely, we are at pains to highlight that both women and men are still, underneath everything, humans.

Fifteen years ago, Hyde’s seminal meta-analysis  on the gender similarity hypothesis, settled this for us. Her research highlighted that men and woman are in fact similar on most psychological constructs (including the popularly misquoted gender difference in self-esteem). Men and women are more similar than different, for example. from cognitive processing and vocabulary through to neuroticism, moral reasoning and leadership.

This gives us the opportunity to look beyond, or undo gender. That’s not as straight forward as it seems. We’ve mixed gender up with many of the ways we categorise or make sense of the world.

For example, think of the different labels for behaviour we use for people of different genders. If women are assertive, we call them bossy. When men are assertive, we call them confident. Men who show emotion attract the label weakness; in women it’s called empathy.

Similarly we insist that as leaders become more senior, they need to become “stronger.” Naturally we make the leap from strength to physicality to a masculine trait and to being a man. We neither pause to notice these unnecessary associations, not think how we can ungender strength in a way that both men and women can succeed.

Unfortunately, it’s too simple to think we can simply solve this by ignoring someone’s gender.

Gender neutral pronouns

In our mostly gender binary blindfolded world we still identify the man and the woman in our workforce; though thankfully we are better able to embrace the breadth of non-binary and transgender too. But allocating gender to a person has an impact. Three large scale studies by researchers by Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez found that use of the specifically created singular gender neutral pronoun of “hen” in Sweden has nudged a culture shift. They discovered that the use of individual gender-neutral pronouns reduced the mental salience of males. As a result people expressed less bias in favour of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women.

  • Identify where you, your leaders or organisation unconsciously apply a gender lens, even when gender is irrelevant. E.g. promotion, your definition of potential, requiring certain behaviours
  • Help your team to take different roles to that challenge the link between gendered expectations and men/women.

These blogs are published in advance of our upcoming Safe Space event to discuss and debate this opportunity with peers from across HR, Talent & D&I, to Build Back Better for women at work.

To share your views on this opportunity to build back better – please complete our survey

To debate and discuss the opportunity with peers from across HR, Talent & D&I – please register for our Safe Space event.

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