With the projections for closing the global economic gender gap only widening year on year (currently standing at 217 years to parity from the 2017 WEF report), each March 8 always feels too important an opportunity for us to miss focussing on the topic. However, it has become abundantly clear that words, talk and hand-wringing, whilst helpful to keep the topic top-of-mind, are not enough. Concrete action that effects systemic change to the patriarchal society we live in is critical, if we are to have any hope of shortening that timeline.
One of the most frustrating things we often see, particularly in large organisations, is the plight of gender equality being left to Women’s Networks to carry the torch for identifying and recommending change. Such networks are not inherently bad things to have, however when one is set up there is a tendency to leave the issue up to them to sort out. As the membership of such groups is usually predominantly, if not wholly, female, this adds up to whole lot of inaction from the rest of the organisation and smacks of leaving it up to women to tackle ‘their problem’.
The challenge with this is that gender equality is not a women’s problem: it is a societal problem, and it is a work problem. It is actively hurting your business and your bottom line. So to really #pushforprogress – the theme for IWD2018 – women cannot push alone. We need all of us, wherever you identify on the gender scale, to work on this.
Many male allies know this, but struggle with knowing what they can practically do to help as they do not want to inadvertently step on, drown out, or get in the way of women’s own ability to effect change. Whilst the fear of being labelled a mansplainer is very real, it cannot and should not prevent you from lending your support and using your privilege and elevated platform to further the gender equality cause.
In our experience of organisational change, we have found that the combination of self-awareness and small practical actions are the most powerful recipe to drive forward sustainable and systemic change. In the spirit of this approach, here are some suggested practical actions we would love to see allies for gender equality put into daily practice:
- Pass the mic: Much like Frances McDormand’s Oscars call to action for allies to adopt inclusion riders in the film industry, so too can allies call for equitable representation at any event or decision-making group they are a part of, especially if they hold a position of privilege or power. At conferences, events or working groups, step down if organisers refuse to make the line up diverse, opening up your spot for a woman.
- Call it out: The Everyday Sexism movement blew up because women notice examples and actions of disparity every day that hold them back. We would love it if allies could notice them too, and call them out or back us up when we do. This has even more power if you do it when we are not there. The time of saying “it’s not worth the hassle”, or turning a blind eye, has to be over if we are to move forward (and while we are on the subject, please stop #NotAllMen-ing).
- Listen to women’s voices: One of the most effective ways of supporting gender equality is to know when to get out of the way and to listen to what women have to say. If you are not sure what support your female co-workers would like, ask them. If you hear a woman being interrupted or have her ideas co-opted, make a point of bringing the conversation back to her and give her the credit.
- Pull women up with you: Female representation in senior positions is still shockingly low. Many public companies are attempting to address this by appointing female non-exec directors, but this is really a band-aid on a broken leg. What is needed is more women in the senior positions responsible for the day-to-day running of organisations. Allies can help by encouraging and supporting female co-workers to progress. Actively promote women and raise their visibility by giving them high-profile tasks and projects. Offer to sponsor or mentor women to open up more opportunities for them to grow into senior roles.
- Check your bias: We all suffer from unconscious bias, which can be one of the most insidious causes of inequality across all groups, and it is extremely hard to root out. At an individual level we can all take steps to become more self-aware, but at an organisational and team level there are some key areas, such as where this bias can create more systemic impacts. Review your recruitment and workplace policies to see if they inadvertently have exclusionist language or implications. Do you use gender-biased language in your job adverts? Use tools such as Textio to highlight this so it can be changed. Are your flexible and part-time work policies used, or do you have a culture where these are frowned upon? Take a good hard look at what signals you are sending in your workplace culture that means these policies are not used.