7 March 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a conversation about how WOMBA can work with you to make a difference to gender equality in your organisation.