International Women's Day - Break the Bias

March 8, International Women’s Day has always been an important day for me. It is a day that holds up the values and goals I worked towards in my career. It is a day of reflection on the juxtaposition between the progress we have made and the reality of the many challenges that women still encounter. As we celebrate the 110th International Women’s Day, I am buoyed by the advances we have made in the last two years :

  • 8 countries have elected or sworn in their first woman Head of State of government

  • In March, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala took office as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, making her both the first woman and the first African to hold this position in the organization’s 26-year history. (1)

  • First Black women, Ketanji Brown, nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

  • With a year of delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics kicked off on 23 July 2021 with almost 49 per cent of participating athletes being women, making it the most gender-balanced Games in history. (1)

Despite the progress, we have a long way to go to reach gender parity. And the pandemic has set back the limited gains we have made.

  • Research by McKinsey reveals that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs.

  • Women make up 39% of global employment but have accounted for 54% of overall job losses during the pandemic. If women’s employment simply tracked that of men, global GDP could be $1 trillion higher in 2030. (2)

  • Over 3 million women have exited the workplace setting us back to mid-1980s levels.

  • As of June 2021, only 8.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women and only 1.2% were women of color.

  • And women are still paid only 77 cents to the dollar earned by men, even when the data is controlled for job type and seniority level.

Break the Bias


The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Break the Bias. And the first step to achieving that is to recognise bias – you can’t break it if you don’t see it. We might be tempted to think that biases against women are from a bygone era – that women are no longer systematically excluded.


If there is no longer an intention to exclude or block women’s progress, why are women not advancing? It’s not always about intentionally excluding women – it is about the subtle and often invisible forces that keep women from advancing in many fields, sometimes called “second generation bias.”


It begins with how we educate our girls. I remember when my daughter was a teenager, she went to a magnet school for science and technology. And she came home and told me – “You know, mom, the teachers never ask the girls to answer questions.” I was thankful that she had noticed this pattern – because recognising the bias is the first step. This helped her to see that the problem did not lie with HER, but with the bias around her.


This often-invisible bias comes in many forms – from a lack of role models to a lack of access to key networks to a lack of sponsors and mentors who can guide the careers of women. The bias also comes in the form of gendered work patterns that funnel women into certain tracks and men into others. Women are perfect for HR and communications roles and men for technology, profit and loss and leadership roles…. You know the drill!

Let me share a quick story. As part of a global company’s mentoring initiative, a male European leader I know was paired with a more junior woman who managed a high-security prison. She had a collaborative, low-key leadership style. After a year, she was up for a promotion, and he became her ally, and an ally for other women in this male dominated sector. He told me that before this mentoring experience, if he had been presented with a choice between a male and a female to manage a prison, he would have chosen the male without a second thought. Given the dangerous environment, he thought an assertive style was needed. But after having met his mentee, he realized there was more than one way to lead effectively.


This double bind is something that women often contend with – where women who display stereotypically female leadership qualities are labelled as soft, and those who display characteristically male qualities are labelled as unlikable and aggressive.


And there are other double binds: I remember women telling me that if they worked late, they were told by colleagues that they did not care about their families, and if they left early, they were seen as not caring about their jobs. There was no way to win! In situations like that, we need allies.


Allies


We need allies to support a promotion, to remind others there are multiple ways to lead. We need allies to make sure that critical meetings don’t happen late in the evening. This allows a work-life balance for everyone – men and women. Because workplaces that work for women, work for everyone.


As Desmond Tutu said: “It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”


These hidden forces – the persistent gender pay gap, unconscious biases in education and promotion- can lead to an environment where women start to second guess their own capacities. And then we are told that the problem is that we lack self-confidence – that we need to “lean in” and take more risks.


Well, I don’t believe we need to “fix women” – we need to step up and fix our workplaces. And to do that we need everyone. And as I write in my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion this means, Going Deep, Wide and Inside Out, principle 4 in my book. This principle considers the importance of embedding DEI wide through thoughtful global governance and strategy frameworks, deep through local champions and allies that seed DEI in the culture, and inside-out by embedding DEI in internal systems and by engaging the external ecosystem.


Allies can make a difference. Remember my daughter, who noticed that the teachers were not asking girls to answer questions? Well, there was one teacher who did intentionally call on the girls. He made a difference in my daughter’s confidence, and she in turn has grown into a self-assured young professional who is touching many lives. I remember we wrote him a letter to thank him, because one of the things we can do is to build up and highlight allies. We need to support and celebrate those who are role modelling the behaviors we want in our work places.


Change happens at the intersection of people and processes


As I say in my book, change happens at the intersection of people and processes and it is work that is ongoing. As much as we need allies to step up for gender equity, organizations need to impact systems and processes - Go Inside Out - to neutralise bias.

Below are a few examples of how leaders can disrupt bias in the talent life cycle.

Recruiting:

  • Ensure diverse interview panels.

  • Establish targets for recruiters to source underrepresented talent.

  • Review selection criteria to ensure they are essential for the job and are not biased towards any identity group.

Development & Advancement:

  • Provide opportunities for development for women including high profile assignments, mentoring and sponsorship.

  • Intentionally identify high potential women as successors in talent reviews and provide them with development plans.

  • Calibrate performance reviews to check for bias.

Engagement:

  • Analyse engagement surveys segregated by identity demographics.

  • Conduct stay interviews to determine what encourages women and underrepresented talent to stay.

  • Conduct regular pay equity analysis disaggregated by level, function and identity demographics.

To learn more about the different ways you can embed DEI into your processes, order your copy of my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.


The time is NOW to break the bias. It can be challenging, frustrating work. And it takes intentionality and dogged persistence. BUT, the time has never been more right. The world, more than ever, is looking to companies for moral leadership to Break the Bias, NOW.


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  1. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/feature-story/2021/12/sixteen-defining-moments-for-gender-equality-in-2021

  2. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects

  3. https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/business-leadership-management-sustainability-hr-break-the-bias-international-womens-day-2022-rholmes-0222



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Learn from My Experience

Live Q&A | May 26th @ 10am EST


I'm excited that on Thursday May 26, 2022 @ 10am EST I will be hosting my 6th Learn from My Experience session, a 1 hour live virtual Q&A session facilitated by Laura Shipler Chico, an actress and facilitator based in London.


I look forward to another engaging session and to answering your DEI questions. To register and submit a question for this session, please click on the link below.


Please do share the link with colleagues and friends who may be interested in joining and learning more about Global DEI.



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