Mar 8, 2023

This week sees International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March, and you may have seen lots of publicity about this on social media. But what should your organisation really be doing to mark this occasion?

Here are a few suggestions:

Focus on actions not just words

A statement from the top about IWD and the role of women in the organisation can be powerful. However this needs to be backed up with evidence; in an age of influencers, people are now more cynical about social media self promotion and will be looking for the true story. For example:
on twitter the Gender Pay Gap Bot automatically retweets organisations IWD announcements with matching statistics; a large corporation posting about their flagship IWD event is given a different perspective when it is revealed that they have a median hourly pay gap of 40-50%.
many women are reporting being asked to come into an organisation and give a talk on IWD without receiving any payment for their time.

Similarly most women do not want to see IWD marked by being given something pink, but real signs of change.

Look at the evidence

The gender pay gap bot, whilst annoying to some, highlights a good place to start – by looking at the evidence you have. This could include gender pay statistics, the male/female make up of the board, an analysis of who has received bonuses, promotions, and access to further training and development. Of course each one of these only gives us a snapshot, but put together and assessed over a period of time they can help bring a reality check to the dialogue.

Engage with and listen to the women in your organisation

The next step is to listen to the women in your organisation. How do they feel working here? Do they feel equally appreciated and recognised? What barriers might they have experienced? What has worked well for them? This might reveal aspects that you had not considered, and may help you make sense of some of the evidence you collected.

Identify the barriers and work out how to pull them down

Once you have gathered both the factual evidence and the lived experiences, you should have a good appreciation of where the challenges are. There may be more work to do in diving down to understand the reasons behind this, many of which are likely to be down to unconscious bias rather than deliberate discrimination.

If your board or senior leadership team is male-dominated, consider why that might be. Often it is because we have a tendency to choose to work with people who are like us, a phenomenon that doesn’t just negatively impact women and other minority groups, but can affect performance by creating “group think” and blind spots.

There is also evidence that women are more likely to wait until they can meet 100% of the criteria before applying for a job, whereas men will apply if they meet around 60%. Using overly long person specifications with little distinction between essential and desirable characteristics means women are more likely to be deterred.

Consider how much progression at work is gained by relationships built whilst socialising, and whether that socialising is really open to all. It is an accepted reality that women are more likely to have the primary responsibility for childcare, and therefore things like “a quick drink after work” can be more problematic. If informal relationships are important to you, can you arrange events for during the work day?

Whilst working on changing these underlying issues, female mentoring schemes are one way to help redress the balance, by providing role models, connections and the encouragement to progress.

Allow women’s voices to be heard

Even when women are part of the leadership team, it can be harder for their voices to be heard.

Studies have consistently shown that in mixed groups men repeatedly interrupt their female colleagues. A study by George Washington University found that men interrupted 33% more often when they spoke with women than when they spoke with other men. In research for Bloomberg, a study of more than 155,000 company conference calls over 19 years found that men spoke an astonishing 92% of the time. This means there is a real challenge in allowing everyone in the room the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

The issue is not just women’s views being quickly dismissed, it can be the exact opposite. Professor Nicole Gugliucci coined the term “hepeating” to describe the act of a male colleague repeating and getting credit for an idea first presented by a female colleague. This leads to a vicious circle of giving the idea that it is the males in the room who are providing the best solutions. In response to this phenomenon, women in some organisations have chosen to actively adopt a strategy of amplification – when a female colleague makes a key point, they repeat it, giving explicit credit to its author, thereby reinforcing recognition of the contribution and preventing any mis-attribution.

Free your staff from the expectations of gender norms

This goes beyond the old chestnut of it always being the woman who is asked to make the coffee. Women executives have talked about the unspoken expectation that it will be them who takes notes at a meeting. Women are also expected to excel at the softer, more nurturing skills, and to deal with any emotional incidents that arise. Conversely they can be labelled “bossy” if they take control of a situation, where a male colleague would be seen as determined or assertive.

These traditional labels can of course be unfair on male employees as well – it is equally inappropriate to assume that they will be the ones to fix the AV equipment, or that they don’t have the skills needed to deal with sensitive circumstances.

The wider benefits

This last example highlights a key point – many of these issues apply, in slightly different ways, to other groups within your organisation, and not just the visible ones but e.g. extroverts and introverts.

The benefit of this, is that acting on these issues does not have to be just a once a year response to International Women’s Day, but an opportunity to listen to all the voices in your organisation and work on building a fairer, more inclusive and ultimately more effective place to work.