Today is, as I am sure many of you are aware, International Women’s Day. The theme for 2016 is a ‘Pledge for Parity’. Working in a startup, in new and exciting fields, there are scant opportunities to take a step back and count your blessings. However, last night, commuting home I did exactly that. Within Postshift, our small team takes turns at pretty much everything – from making keynote presentations to stacking the dishwasher. Our team, until recently, was female dominated in consulting roles. But none-the-less, we can all do small things everyday to move us closer to true parity.

So I asked my Postshift colleagues Laura-Jane Parker and Ea Ryberg Due, where they see the biggest need for action to gain parity within the workplace, but also to share some of their personal experience from the trenches.

Ea on building positive cultures to enable parity to flourish

I am fortunate to have grown up in a country with one of the smallest gender gaps and throughout my formative years have been supported by individuals, who showed me how I, as a young woman, could forge my own path just as well as my male peers. When I moved to London I, perhaps naively, was surprised by the extent to which gender issues here permeate the work force, relationships and societal expectations, and it deeply frustrates me how we still allow for this imbalance.

An important realisation for me has been to acknowledge that creating parity demands structural solutions but also changing narratives often born out of cultural references and personal heuristics that guide our decisions in everyday life. In recent years feminism has conquered pop culture and as a student of Bourdieu and Miller alike, I strongly believe that everyday objects have the potential to confront  our underlying assumptions and biases by asking hard questions and providing alternative narratives in non-threating ways (e.g. as a part of a stage show) that can be consumed like other entertainment or products. But we all know that changing attitudes is slow process and only has impact if embodied in structural changes (e.g. affordable daycare, wage equality etc.).

The fourth wave of feminism is fighting for important issues and there are experts more qualified that I to discuss these; why one third of developing regions have not achieved gender parity in primary education or how in the most progressive countries women only hold around 30 per cent of seats in the national parliaments. But I can and will comment on organisations’ role in establishing parity. Companies, big and small, have the power to create social mobility, build people’s capabilities and impact the distribution of wealth in society. While this responsibility is heavy it is also paramount for ensuring equal opportunities for women and that we, the society, benefit from the resourceful women, who because of the limitations and expectations of current workplace cultures choose not to work, take part time or easier jobs below their skills level.

From my own experience in Postshift and previous employers I have seen leadership, which not only make it possible for women to thrive but also take an active role in supporting their female employees in breaking through any conscious or unconscious bias encountered (as discussed by LJ below). On many occasions, Lee and Livio have gone above and beyond the call of duty to work on how my female counterparts and I position ourselves to male colleagues and clients (often male and much more senior) as well as our self-understanding. For one, we have had many discussions on how we can more consciously counter-act some people’s inclination to give less weigh to arguments or deliverables from female consultants. Whilst we have not found the silver bullet, most importantly the discussions empower us to at least attempt changing presumptions rather than passively accepting them. Over time these discussions have also shaped Postshift’s culture and work environment. In contrast to many workplaces – and especially the industries notorious for accepting this male dominated culture – these occasional jokes or thoughtless behaviours are called out by all members of our office. For some of our team members this has lead to very red ears and memorable lessons, and these conversations are not always easy; but I see them as necessary and probably one of the main reasons that I am still shifting with the twins.

Laura-Jane on enabling transparency to bring parity to the boardroom

One of my biggest frustrations in the quest for parity, is that the percentage of women dramatically falls off a cliff as you get to senior leadership levels in many organisations. It is no coincidence that woman are still at under 20% female representation on Fortune 1000 boards, and improving at a glacial pace. Conscious and unconscious bias can be one of the most insidious barriers when it comes to women progressing into leadership roles, as it is less tangible to identify and address.

When I worked in my last organisation, I led a piece of work for their Diversity Network to research the causes of lack of progression by women into senior roles, and unconscious bias was by far and away the biggest issue surfaced. We gathered an overwhelming number of reports from male and female employees about seemingly harmless comments that went unquestioned – ‘Clocking off early?’ or variations of this being the most popular when part-time employees left to collect children or care for other dependants. Although this was not necessarily aimed at employees due to their gender, female employees still make up the majority of those as primary care givers, so the brunt of the stigma around part-time working still lies squarely on our shoulders. Doing this piece of work was the first time it had been brought home to me quite so starkly that, despite structures being put into place through legislation, these underlying attitudes still exist. I realised that when and if I decide to have children, I will still need to be fighting this stigma if I decide to go part-time, or a whole different type of judgement if I don’t. In isolation these comments can be passed off as harmless jokes, but as with any prejudice, when each comment is let slide or ignored, you earn compound interest on a culture that holds women back.

Within our organisations, we can experiment with different ways to empower women to make more impact with transparency. One possible answer that we hear about is distributed authority for decision-making by companies such as Morning Star and Google. An advice process used for decisions, which empowers all employees to make decisions, as long as they have first sought advice and integrated this into their decision. When applied to the case of leadership recruitment, the technique could become a safeguard against any conscious or unconscious favour of a candidate as the decision making process must be made more inclusive.An even more radical approach could be complete transparency of hiring processes using social technology within the firm to enable the decision making to be held up to scrutiny/comment by the entire employee base. Conscious and unconscious bias thrives particularly when it is able to be hidden, masked or glossed over. As organisations either choose to be, or are forced to be, more transparent in their decisions around gender parity, it becomes harder for such bias to continue without being called out. I see hope as more organisations start to see the value of transparency, enabled by technology – but I’ll be honest – I really thought we’d be further along by now.

Cerys on finding your own path to parity

Coming to this blog post last, I am struck by how the three of us share similar experiences, despite very different backgrounds.

One of the most useful and underrated management techniques that can help in bringing parity to the workplace (imo) is more cultural – a focus on bringing your whole self to work, one of the key tenets of the Teal Organisation proposed as the next evolutionary stage of organisation development by Frederic Laloux. For many years a clear divide between personal and professional, and an ability to keep those things separate, was seen as crucial for women in the workplace, and people confused personal versus professional, with discussions on work-life balance. To show focus and commitment, to compete on male terms meant leaving crucial pieces of yourself at the door. Organisations are beginning to recognise that there is huge value in allowing individuals to breach the personal and professional divide and embrace their whole self at work – it can also provide better work-life balance through leveraging your strengths more than weaknesses, focusing on what you deliver rather than how long you sit at a desk.

I spent many of my early years of career building, carefully crafting a clear divide between my personal and professional lives – presenting only those piece of myself to clients that I felt were relevant to the work I was delivering. But as a young woman working in technology, as a consultant, the barriers always seemed to be the same – those unconscious biases have a habit of creeping in everywhere. At first, I muddled my way through, then made great strides having found some great female role models and mentors, whether they knew it or not (I’m looking at you, Judi, Liz & Sharon).

But the biggest change occurred through listening to the ways in which others introduced me, especially through the way that male consultants and thought leaders who knew me well (your turn Lee), who had a vested interest in me being perceived as a strong, driven, capable consultant. They would always start with my professional creds, but would quickly round them out by focusing on other pursuits, side projects and interests – essentially giving me permission to bring my whole self to the table, to the benefit of my clients, employers and wider project teams. Combined with some of the positive examples explained by Ea above, our workplace continues to grow and evolve through openness and transparency internally, and making deeper, stronger and more trustful relationships with our clients. Whether finding a common ability to speak some Welsh with one contact, or a shared fascination with diving with humpback whales with another, I find our journey towards amazing project outcomes all the richer for them.

The Challenge Ahead

A pledge for parity can feel, at times, vague and amorphous – although applicable on a global scale, what needs to be achieved within different communities ranges across a vast spectrum. But within our own workplaces, the implementation of new techniques at the individual, team and business unit level can create a butterfly effect both inside and outside the organisations boundaries.