This is the final blog in a series of three, exploring the opportunity that we currently have to build back better for women at work.
The need to do things differently
The She-cession and The Great Resignation enable us to seize the opportunity. We can radically shift gender equity through building back better and generating a “She-bound”. If the first blog explored the unique confluence of events that has created this opportunity, and the second questioned how we can think differently, this final blog examines what we might do differently.
Think of doing something differently as a reordering or discovering the new order of how we “do” gender at work. Reordering provides the opening to rebuild in a different way. It creates a new understanding of women and men and what they are capable of at work. Doing gender differently happens in the everyday interactions – conversations, meetings, processes. We need to consider what we do and how we do this in a radically different way?
Don’t just make rule changes – redefine the game of work.
Our first suggestion for doing things differently borrows from the arena of sport. A few years ago, I was part of a team, led by researcher Dr. Laura Hills looking at girls’ participation in mixed-gender football. Up until then, girls were only allowed to play with boys until the age of 11. This restriction on girls’ participation was partly due to the unquestioned assumptions about boys relatively superior skill and strength beyond this age. Other very tenuous assumptions, such as the lack of changing facilities for girls, were also offered up as barriers to equity.
Our research uncovered the benevolent sexism in the sport of football. This continually reinforced gendered expectations and gender differences. On the back of the research, the rules were first shifted allow mixed gender participation to age 14. After many more rounds of research, this eventually moved to 18. However, it was a long hard process. Each step of transgression required layers of justification of girls’ capability and boys’ acceptance – as if these young women had to prove their value and their participation. There was no levelling of the playing field, to borrow a football metaphor; just continual hoops for girls to jump through to be allowed to play the boys’ game.
And isn’t that what we’ve been asking women to do for decades now? Jump through a continual series of hoops. Women have had to show how they are strong enough and skilled enough to be equal players on the field of work.
Well, that must stop. Women don’t need to prove they are good enough, tough enough, smart enough, or confident enough to have a seat at the work or Board table. Right now, we have a window of opportunity to redesign the rules of the game of work.
Design work like the game of quidditch
Redesigning the game of work, of course, starts with thinking differently. Which first means being uncomfortable with lifting new stones, exploring the unknown and suggesting bold change. Along with that comes the need to recognise that the solution is complex and, wherever possible, look beyond gender and the labels we use.
Going back to the drawing board and redesigning work as if it were a new game is not easy. It might help to think of work like the game of quidditch. Designed from the start to be gender neutral, teams can have no more than 4 out of the 7 players from one gender. It is fast paced, strategic and physical. Everything about the teams and the sport encourages equal value and participation from all genders.
Reimagine the interactional processes
Just because 20th century work was planned to be a man’s game originally, with women playing a bit part or staying home, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We can start to come up with radically new answers to questions such as: who gets to play, what are the rules of participation, who decides on the rules, how do players work with each other, what skills and capabilities are valued?
Take just one of these, ‘How do players work with each other?’ If we follow the game metaphor through, we might ask: do they tackle each other to the ground or is it a free-flowing pacey non-contact sport? Do players work together to create opportunities or is it everyone for themselves, winner takes all? Do players shout and direct or is there support and encouragement?
Whilst this might feel like a silly metaphor, the truth underneath is far from silly. Starting with a blank sheet of paper to determine the rules of work opens transformative possibilities. Organisational interactional process such as performance management, team working, conflict management and communication platforms can be questioned, removed or redesigned with gender equity in mind.
Have women experts leading women out of the she-cession?
Who is leading us out of the She-cession provides a second opportunity to do something different. Not only does that leadership need true diversity of experience, but also a worldview that can see beyond the now into a future of inclusivity (not just for gender, but also disability, race, and other experiences of exclusion).
Michelle King penned an article for Harvard Business Review recently, imploring leaders to stop denying the gender inequity in their business. She eloquently explains that it is leaders who set the standards for behaviours in organisations. King intones that “Leaders decide what gets endorsed, accepted, supported, overlooked, and rewarded. They decide how many women will be on a team, and more importantly if they will be treated in a way that enables them to thrive in the organization.” No amount of HR initiatives or training programmes can roll-back the impact of leadership behaviours and or silent acquiescence that discriminate, marginalise, and exclude women.
Who are your women experts?
So if we accept that the tone and content of the She-bound will be set by leaders, who do we have doing that in our organisations? We already know that women still occupy fewer seats at the leadership and Board tables than men.
The pandemic gives us us the opportunity to go one step further to raise up the women experts who are transforming our businesses. Yet, the recent demands on healthcare revealed that a mere 3.5% of COVID-19 decision making and expert bodies had gender parity. We passed the majority of the COVID decision making and recovery over to men.
Creating the She-bound, why are we letting men lead the transition to equity. Instead, we need women leading women in the workplace, and out of the She-cession.
This raises many questions. Who are the expert women in our organisations? Which women’s voices are not being heard? If there is marginal gender difference in capability and characteristics between men and women, we are just not looking hard enough, or even trusting our women to lead the change.
It’s a journey best done together
We hope that this series of three blogs will prompt HR, D&I and Talent professionals to pause a moment. This is an inflection point for women in businesses across the UK and beyond. We have suggested some ways that we all must think and act differently, if we are to grasp the opportunity and radically shift the gender equity dial. As you grasp this mantle, at Becoming, we applaud you, and join you in the journey forwards together.