“It all starts with awareness. Awareness leads to choice.” Renée Elliott.
Gender Equality Event – London Business School – May 21st 2019
The Future’s Bright
It’s both refreshing and encouraging to be in conversation with future business leaders who have the awareness and ambition to create new paradigms of gender equality at work. However, it’s not necessarily an easy conversation as it requires us to take an honest look at our own behaviours and paradigms with a sincere willingness to do things differently going forwards.
The group of seasoned executives we gathered with at London Business School, each now completing a Masters in business before venturing back into the world of business and corporate life, demonstrated the kind of open, brave and conscious mindset that inspires confidence in the future of work.
Lessons To Be Repeated
Among the many takeaways from the session there were some which may not be new but are certainly worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating … until the lessons are no longer needed.
Let’s start with what’s obvious: inappropriate, sexualised behaviour continues at work, and it’s not ok. This behaviour is perpetrated by those in authority, amongst peers, in the workplace and at work social functions. Whether the impetus of such behaviour is a power agenda, alcohol or ignorance, let’s agree that the accepted norm (still) must shift from ‘you’ve got to learn to navigate that’ to ‘they’ve got to stop doing that’.
It occurred to me as we went around the table sharing experience that it was a powerful reminder, if not a new one, to hear people’s experience of this kind of behaviour. Yes, we can all agree that the behaviour is not acceptable, and yet too often it continues to be normalised. We should rightly shine a light on what is hidden such that it can no longer continue in the shadows of our awareness.
There are also accepted systems that structure exclusivity and, at the very least, promote awkwardness. Consider for example how we structure social functions connected to work. Is a football match or a sports bar (or strip bar, or hot tub…) really the best way to include everyone in the interaction and to make available the career benefits to be had from these interactions? A more thoughtful approach as to how we set up social interactions related to work, including enquiry as to what people actually enjoy seems like a smart way forwards.
In some ways, this is the easy stuff. I don’t mean being the victim of inappropriate advances or systemic limitations of access is easy – obviously it’s the very opposite – I mean that these are the kinds of behaviours that we can easily agree must change in order to move the dial toward greater gender equality. Wider cultural change in organisations and industries is also not easy, but there are structural things that we can readily implement to support that change. Where it perhaps gets more challenging is in how we each show up in the workplace as it currently exists. What can I do differently to better advantage myself, my colleagues and the business I work in?
Questions of Female/Male Paradigm
In consideration of our own individual behaviour, it’s worth considering female and male paradigms. Yes, absolutely, we are venturing into the territory of massive generalisation. And yes, none of what we’re exploring here is exclusively ‘female/male’, nor are the roles in any interaction exclusively the domain of either a woman or a man. But for the sake of our enquiry as to how we can do better, let’s allow ourselves to speak in generalisations for a moment.
Let’s also consider that in looking at female/male paradigms we are also looking at the very core of our own beingness, wherever we might consider ourselves in the him/her/they strata. How we ‘show up’ is driven by our own particular, individual mix of all kinds of unconscious societal, biological, psychological, experiential and cultural considerations and motivations, which are beyond simple male or female paradigm definitions. Accepting that, let’s give ourselves permission to be simplistic for our purposes here and talk in terms of ‘male’ and ‘female’ paradigms, to illustrate themes of interest to come out of what was a powerful conversation today.
Notably, we can observe that men are quick to speak up and be heard. This is not a criticism. Clearly every man present today was there honestly and whole heatedly in support of the agenda of the session. My own perception was that universally what was shared today, from men and women alike, was positively contributing to the discussion, and with an intent to share, learn, support and grow. But we cannot pretend that the first three people to speak were not men, despite being a little outnumbered by women in the group. It was a perfect set up for our conversation and there is so much that we can glean from this simple, all too often (often unnoticed by the men) occurrence. I’ve been at events populated almost exclusively by women, and the first hand up after the talk is the one man in the audience! What is that? Cultural? Biological? Familial? Confidence? Over-compensation?… I honestly don’t know. Are men over-bearing? Are women too reserved in their opinion?… I wouldn’t like to say. The more useful question might be: What do I, whether I am a man or woman, want to do to do with this propensity? How might I, as an individual, be more effective in response to this paradigm? Interesting questions indeed.
My own journey has been to understand that I’m often quick to speak first but that there is a greater opportunity for me to listen more. Guess what: when I listen more I always gain more, I learn more and better results can be achieved. I know, it’s so obvious. But in my male paradigm it’s not always easy!
From the perspective of the female paradigm there seem to be similarly interesting questions to ask. Are there times I can choose to speak up, even if my thought is not perfected? Will I assert my opinion, even though I may be judged for being ‘too aggressive’ (an attribution rarely applied to men in the work place)? Or can I strategically ally with team members prior to a meeting in order to press my perspective which may not be popular?
But let’s be careful that we don’t place sole responsibility for shifting the paradigm onto the shoulders of women (once again). Instead we might also consider bettering the ‘meeting hygiene’ as one of our number put it. What are the agreed rules, or values, we have for our meetings? What are the priority values I have, as a team leader, and how can I communicate these clearly to my team? How about a dollar fine every time someone breaks the rules? These kinds of ‘agreed rules’ create awareness and can promote behaviours that support healthier culture, greater inclusivity and improved outcomes.
Taking The Next Step
To complete what was an insightful conversation we shifted gear into what we each could and would individually do going forwards, to better advantage ourselves, our teams and our businesses. Once again, some powerful themes came to the fore. A commitment to speaking out was expressed in a number of ways: calling out unacceptable behaviour, being more vocal in ones own point of view, assuming greater confidence, and actively advocating for the paradigms we stand for. Advocacy was itself also a theme: both in seeking out those ahead of me who can advocate for me, applauding those who demonstrate positive advocacy, and a willingness to advocate for those behind me as I move into leadership roles.
This truly was an inspiring session. Renée and I applauded the group for their commitment, vision and values. As Renée said, when respect is fostered in a group many of the behaviours and paradigms that create gender inequality fall away. Congratulations London Business School for leading the way.
Join Renée and Sam at Connect breakfast gatherings each month.
You can find a list of upcoming events on Beluga Bean Calendar.