Let’s take a right turn this International Women’s Day

There’s some positive news to celebrate on #IWD2021. But just before I get to that – let me ask you:

Is it more important to ‘do things right‘ or ‘do the right things‘?

At WOMBA we see first-hand the energy and effort of organisations to become more gender equal. And they’re certainly trying to do things right with a plethora of policies, processes and programmes. From employee resource groups to recruitment shortlists, from flexible working to enhanced shared parental leave.

And the good news is these have translated into some positive change.

There have been positive gender equality strides in the boardroom

It was reported last week in the final Hampton-Alexander Review that women now hold one in three boardroom roles at the UK’s FTSE 350 companies and the number of FTSE 100 female directors has doubled in five years. This is enormous progress at board level over a relatively short period. I’m proud of my WOMBA partner, Helen Sachdev, who is one of the female trailblazers in the boardroom.

Outside the boardroom progress has been slower

We need to celebrate these milestones whilst also recognising that progress outside the boardroom has been slow. Worryingly, even this slow progress has proven fragile in the last year.

Women’s jobs have been more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s

The economic shocks of the pandemic have impacted women disproportionately whether that’s through furlough, redundancy or the impossible task of working, parenting and home schooling. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have lost their job or quit.

Economists have dubbed the impact of COVID-19 on women in work as a ‘shecession’. Shockingly it’s threatening to set back decades of progress. The World Economic Forum has estimated at the present rate of change, it will take nearly a century to achieve parity.

What if by trying to do things right organisations are slowing down rather than accelerating gender equality?

Something has to change to accelerate the rate of change. For some time, we’ve been trying to make sense of the discrepancy between effort and progress. Might it be that whilst organisations are doing things right, they’re not doing enough of the right things to accelerate gender equality – despite good intentions? Or perhaps their efforts to do things right may even be backfiring? To understand this we can focus on a critical stage in a woman’s career – becoming a parent.

Organisations know how pivotal the point of becoming a mother is

The gender pay gap increases after the arrival of children and it is widely recognised how the birth of a first child is pivotal. The McKenzie-Delis Packer Review found: 92% of organisations recognise the benefits of having parents in the workforce; 84% agree there is value in helping parents prepare for and return from parental leave, and over half provide formal support for someone returning from parental leave.

The role of expectations and assumptions

However, there are two studies that point to some initiatives and support to address gender inequality not being the right thing and even detrimental. This is because of outdated expectations and unhelpful assumptions.

Expectation Bias about working mothers

The first study from The Female Lead found that current workplace initiatives to address the gender pay gap and female career progress have limited effects because they’re partially based on outdated expectations about what women want. One of these is the perception that motherhood shifts a woman’s professional identity to the back seat. This expectation bias towards women returning from maternity leave (from both women and men) persists and negatively impacts career progression.

Expectation bias involved lower expectations of these women’s contributions to the organisation, doubt as to their commitment and ability to take on new responsibilities and challenges. Even worse there is a ripple effect. Women don’t have to experience bias directly to be adversely affected by it. Witnessing bias against other women discouraged some women from seeking promotion when they were considering having a family and confirmed their belief that they could not rise in their career and have children.

This finding is supported by research from the EHRC that found a third of managers believe that expectant and new mothers in work are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ compared to other employees in their company.

Unhelpful Assumptions about pregnant women

The second study I initially struggled with. This is because a key finding was that the help given to women around their pregnancy can make them more likely to quit. But the longer I sat with it, the more it made sense.

The HBR article The Right and Wrong ways to Help Pregnant Workers (based on a longitudinal research project pre- and post-maternity leave) reported that the more help women received at work while pregnant the more they wanted to quit their jobs nine months after their babies were born. They also developed greater negative self-views about their potential to be good workers and working mothers.

They were appreciative of physical and practical help but were less enthusiastic when they felt they were being protected or denied challenging work. This can lead to women feeling they can’t keep up, feeling less capable and weaker – and this can become a self-fulling prophesy.

They concluded that ‘help will be most welcome when it’s offered in response to someone’s request, is negotiated with her and encourages autonomy instead of dependency’. It is crucial to be aware how dangerous assumptions are about what kind of help someone wants or needs.

So, if outdated expectations and unhelpful assumptions are getting in the way, what are the right things to accelerate gender equality?

Three WOMBA actionable insights based on our experience:

  1. Listen. And we mean really listen. Listen to your employees and your managers. Uncover what are the pinch and pain points that are getting in the way of gender equality. In our experience there are common themes and organisation-specific issues. These include: unintended consequences when a woman announces she’s pregnant; encouraging employees to consider applying for promotion during parental leave without the system access to do so; and the rate of change in a business making it really hard to get back up to speed when returning from maternity leave.
    Listening is the starting point for all our programmes.

  2. Upskill your managers. We hear time and again well-intentioned managers making assumptions about what their team member wants or needs or what they think is “best” for them. Every person is different, and assumptions can have unintended negative consequences. A manager may think they’re being “helpful” but the result may be the opposite. Close the assumption gap by upskilling your managers to have those “awkward” or “difficult” conversations so they have an understanding and insight into each team member. This will create a better and more consistent experience for expectant and returning mums as well as the rest of the team.
    Upskilling managers is critical and can be as simple as a workshop.

  3. Communicate with care. Language really does matter when building a more inclusive and equitable culture – whether you’re communicating why this is important and beneficial to your organisation or communicating specific programmes and initiatives. This isn’t about “helping” underrepresented groups. It’s about valuing difference, creating a safe space for people to speak up and encouraging autonomy.
    What brings us greatest satisfaction when we evaluate our coaching programmes is over 70% of women feel more confident, less anxious and more in control.

The benefits of embracing these insights to do the right things are:

  • Leaders understand what the real issues are and can take action.
  • Managers understand the experience of their pregnant and working mothers and have conversations rather than make assumptions.
  • And, most importantly, the women we coach around their maternity leave feel more confident and more in control.

Please get in touch at info@wombagroup.com if you’d like a conversation about how WOMBA can work with you to make a difference to gender equality in your organisation.