Pearn Kandola Banner Pearn Kandola Banner

blogs

This year over 386,000 people applied for one of around 40,000 places to run in the London Marathon. They all chose this for themselves knowing it will be tough, painful, and take a very long time! I was not one of them. However, just for a moment ask yourselves “What if?” What if you needed me, a non-runner, who hasn’t done much running before, who doesn’t believe she would be any good at running, who doesn’t believe the pain, effort and time will be a worthwhile investment, who didn’t voluntarily sign up for this exercise in self-punishment; what if you needed me to run a marathon too?

In organisations, we can see different but comparable challenges. We might need someone to adapt to a different role or situation that they didn’t expressly sign up to when they first joined the firm. For example, to take on extra leadership responsibility, set more ambitious personal targets for sales, productivity, efficiency or to adapt to new emerging technology. What do we do about those who choose to stay with what is more comfortable, or who simply discount themselves, assuming it is not possible. In other words who either “won’t” or think they “can’t” achieve this goal.

Too often we see managers and organisations thinking about motivation in terms of the reward that is given when someone crosses the finish line, and achieves their targets. Should they offer a voucher; an extra day off; a bottle of wine; cash? This is like believing that people will run a marathon because at the end you get a T-shirt, a medal, and perhaps a swig of champagne! Sure those things are nice as a way of marking and celebrating the achievement. But these celebratory gifts do not make up for a lack of competence or will. In fact they can even be counterproductive.

Furthermore, the manager is often too focussed on running their own race to know where things have gone wrong. After trying and failing with a range of rewards, they can see the employee as the problem. In fact if the employee belongs to an outgroup and appears very different from you or those who have been successful in the past; there is an even greater risk of them being written off as “not having the right stuff” rather than questioning how you could have better supported them in getting to the finish line.

The reality is most of us can’t achieve difficult goals all on our own. We use apps, videos, clubs, classes and best of all personal trainers to give support along the way. For organisations the challenge is how to free up managers to fulfil the role of personal trainer and refocus their energies on what happens for the 364 days that lead up to race day to ensure as many people as possible, and not only the elite, get there. In organisations it can be minority groups who benefit the most from having such individualised support. For example we know that 91% women who reached senior positions had a mentor and it was often stated as the most essential aspect for career advancement for women (Ragins, Townsend and Mattis, 1998).

Making the activity feel good

Some people will just want to go running because it simply feels good: the lycra, the wind in their hair, the smell of liniment, and the resulting endorphin high! However, getting people to push themselves harder or train through winter weather can bring unpleasant sensations too. A popular model from sports psychology suggests it helps to maximise three key conditions that make the activity intrinsically motivating or fun (Self Determination Theory, Deci and Ryan, 1987). The activity must:

● Lead to an improvement in competence.

● Create closer connections with others.

● Enhance a sense of control and ability to influence the outcome.

Conversely, if you impose too many rules and regulations on how an activity is done and make people achieve this in isolation or if you focus attention a rewarding the outcome rather than emphasising the learning and improvement that takes place along the way, you will undermine the person’s motivation and drive.

In work, we get paid to do things we don’t necessarily enjoy. However, it is a mistake to focus on rewards as a motivator; this simply exaggerates a feeling of being controlled and undermines, rather than builds, intrinsic motivation. People will do the minimum it takes to get the reward, and who cares if this is less innovative, less inclusive or less collaborative in the process.

Competence

People are motivated to do things that lead to a feeling of mastery. This means helping others:

● Believe they can change. Overcoming the idea that you were either born a runner or you were not; breaking assumptions of potential based on stereotypes; finding role models to prove change is possible.

● Know what to change. Helping others identify what works for them so they can repeat this.

● Gather evidence that change is happening. Giving a sense of progression and building self-belief through achievement of incremental goals.

● Aim for right pace of change. Not too easy or too challenging.

The difficulty is organisations often choose to invest in the best “talent” and may overlook those who simply haven’t had the opportunity to shine yet. Also unconscious biases may mean managers invest more in developing some people’s competence than others. Minority groups get less instruction and quality feedback and fewer stretch opportunities. Too often self-limiting beliefs go unchallenged for these groups too and they count themselves out of more aspirational aims. As a result, minority groups will receive less opportunities for developing competence, and therefore less of this key ingredient for motivation. It all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where those who are not expected to do well are set-up for failure.

Connection

People want to belong and will engage in activities that enhance a sense of inclusion and connection. Even in running which in most cases is a solo activity, relationships are a key motivator.

● Shared experience. Finding training buddies, spending time with a coach or mentor, taking part in events together.

● Social Capital. Being part of a valued group, receiving endorsement from others, gaining opportunities to talk about shared experiences.

● Team Effort. Contributing to shared goal, or delivering benefit for others.

● Inclusion. Feeling accepted and included for who you are, having help to access and build networks.

We know that is human nature to favour those more like ourselves and this can drive a myriad of subtle biases in how we evaluate or communicate with others. However, as soon as you favour some, you automatically disadvantage others. Minority groups can suffer acute feelings of exclusion and feel less engaged as a result. The quality of relationships can have other knock-on effects. Men’s networks tend to have higher social capital – the people within are more senior and able to provide greater access to developmental support. So not only do minority groups get less opportunity to build a sense of connection, this can, in turn exacerbate the barriers to accessing opportunities for building competence.

Control

People will enjoy activities more and invest more in them if they feel a sense of choice or control over what they are doing and an ability to affect the outcome.

● Empowerment. Being given scope to decide on the goals and to experiment.

● Exercising choice. Freedom over where, when and how to achieve the goal in a way that suits you; coaching facilitation rather than directive approaches.

● What’s in it for me. Identifying values and drivers that make the activity personally worthwhile.

The difficulty for individuals from more diverse backgrounds is that too often we define the root to success too specifically, creating overly prescriptive frameworks for assessing performance and doing so in a way that simply reflects the image of those who have succeeded in the past. This stifles our ability to harness the new creative approaches that a more diverse workforce can offer.

Everyone can do it!

This year half of the London Marathon runners are women and we have all been witness to amazing feats of achievements from people with significant physical disability. The story is, at its core, one of inclusion and exploration of personal potential. However, at the same time overall standards of achievement in the Marathon continue to rise rather than be diluted from this more open and inclusive approach. What can you and yours do to get others to the finish line. The benefits will be widespread. And that really will be something to celebrate!

I’m fascinated by micro-incivilities and with the launch of Binna Kandola’s book ‘Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference’, it feels like a good opportunity to share my experience of race and micro-incivilities. It’s a slightly different perspective because, whilst I haven’t been on the receiving end of racial micro-incivilities, I do have personal experience.

Micro-incivilities are the small actions that we take, often unconsciously that can make people feel excluded. The discussion in this area was initially focused on race but we know from the research that we behave differently towards members of our ‘in-group’ (to slightly oversimplify - people like me) and our ‘outgroup’ (people not like me). For our in-group members we are more likely to remember their contributions, remember more positive information about them and offer more support to them, amongst other things.

When I speak to people about micro-incivilities they ask: Do they really matter these small behaviours? How can such small things possibly make a difference? I suppose if you’re not at the receiving end of them they probably don’t. But if day in, day out people forget your name, forget the points you make in meetings and they don’t give you eye contact in the same way they do to everyone else– then these small behaviours do make a difference. It’s easy to see how they can make you quickly feel invisible.

So micro-incivilities do matter. That said, I don’t think the size of the behaviours is the real issue. I think the biggest problem is actually that most of us don’t believe that micro incivilities are relevant to us. We get it in theory but it applies to other people.

I certainly don’t consider myself racist, I spend my working life trying to help people understand how to minimise bias and be more fair in their decisions. I couldn’t possibly display any racial micro-incivilities, could I?

Actually yes, my own impact was brought into sharp focus for me fairly early in my career when I accompanied my colleague and managing partner to a pitch meeting. The client had wanted to meet the delivery team and I was keen to be involved and delighted to go along to the pitch. Nervous and keen to impress, I had prepared well and felt like I knew my stuff. The pitch seemed to go fairly well and so I was shocked when the feedback came back that we had won the work, but the client had specifically requested that I not be involved. My feedback was that during the pitch all my responses had been directed to the senior white male in the room and that I had made very little contact with the black female who was also part of the client team. That was not what they wanted from a diversity professional (and quite rightly!), so I wasn’t involved in the project.

Although I hadn’t had any awareness of the different ways I responded to the two clients in that pitch, the individual who gave the feedback was very aware of the impact. That was a huge wakeup call and valuable learning point for which I’m grateful – there are not many other situations where would I have even received that feedback.

Despite my very best intentions, I’ve displayed racial micro-incivilities. I didn’t intend to, I didn’t realise I was doing it, but in the end that doesn’t matter – it had an impact.

It’s easy to say, “it doesn’t apply to me” or “it’s not something I’d ever do” but that’s the problem – we do respond differently to people who are not part of our ‘in group’. The good news is that we don’t have to passively let it happen. It takes a conscious effort - to notice when we are doing it and then take steps to reverse our behaviour, but we can do it. We have the choice; we don’t have to let the little things become a big thing.

We’re a social species. And this is so much more than a simple inclination or preference. Increasingly we’re realising that our connection to others plays a vital role for our health and well-being. For example, a massive study in 2010 reviewing evidence from 300,000 individuals, found that the quality of the connections in our lives predicts how long we’ll live better than blood pressure or exercise. In fact, it’s comparable to whether or not we smoke1.

The problem is that while we can control our social environment for the most part, we spend approximately 1/3 of our waking hours each week at work (assuming you work 40 hours), operating in a social bubble that we can have much less influence over. On the outside we can surround ourselves with our friends and relatives. At work, we need to slot into the social environment we find ourselves in, and we do not all experience it in the same way. In fact, if you are a racial minority in your workplace, this difference can lead to feelings of social isolation if not actively managed.

The way we are wired as humans means that we are consciously aware when we have surface level differences (e.g. race) to those around us, and we are more likely to define and differentiate ourselves based on this difference. In short, we know when we are a minority, and this can influence how socially integrated we feel at work.

When no efforts are made to help us feel integrated at work, research shows that this can impact on our performance. For example, a meta-analysis in 2012 found that individuals with surface level differences (including race and gender) to the majority of their colleagues were also more likely to feel socially disconnected if the organisation took no action to manage this. Where no efforts were made by the organisation to promote inclusive work practices, these individuals were also more likely to report lower engagement with their work, display lower job performance (task and discretionary), and were more likely to leave their organisation2.

However surface level differences such as race, only lead to feelings of social isolation if we let them. Where efforts are made to shape processes so that they encourage team members to rely on one another, and where leaders role model inclusive behaviour, the evidence suggests that racial minorities will feel just as socially integrated as majority group members. Most importantly, the research suggests that when we feel social integrated, we perform better and are more likely to stay. Inclusion is not simply a nice to have or ‘good management’. It is essential for any organisation employing people.

1 Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7), e1000316.
2 Guillaume, Y., Brodbeck, F., & Riketta, M. (2012). Surface and deep-level dissimilarity effects on social integration and individual effectiveness related outcomes in work groups: a meta-analytic integration. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 85, 80-115.

70% of employees involved in a recent study[1] reported feeling excluded at work in the last six months. Given that our need to fit in is such a fundamental human instinct, this finding has significant implications.

Just as feeling included has positive impact on areas such as well-being, engagement and motivation, feeling excluded, can be extremely damaging. Recent research for example has found that not only does exclusion at work have a detrimental impact on commitment, engagement and turnover, but that those who feel excluded are more likely to report health problems. Moreover, these effects are even more detrimental than those of harassment.

The ironic thing about inclusion of course is that some employees are significantly more likely to be included than others.

Even from the age of two, children begin to show preferences for children and people like themselves. These preferences develop over time, so that children quickly hold value-laden attitudes and beliefs that differentiate between their own group and other groups. By age three, children show more positivity towards—and report more reciprocated friendships with—same-sex peers [2] and by four-five years white children prefer—and express a greater liking for—other white children [3]. Children are not colour blind in the way that we cosily like to assume they are. Worse still, as clearly demonstrated in Binna’s book on Racism at Work, it is the way we socialise children that fuels them to travel from a benign state of recognising race differences to developing value laden inferences and onto discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.

The trouble is of course that we are ultimately lazy. We find it much easier to include some people than we do others – indeed we often include people who are like us without ever being consciously aware that we are doing so. We find it easier to communicate with people that we are similar to;
we are better able to predict their behaviour, so we feel more comfortable around them. We have higher levels of trust initially for people we are demographically similar to, and stronger relationships. Because this is so much easier with people that we are demographically similar to that means that all too easily, both at work and socially, we stick to people like us.

This means that some groups of people are much more likely to feel excluded than others, because they are in the minority. Put simply, those who are in the majority are more likely to experience inclusion simply because they have to work less hard, travel less far, meet fewer people, to find others who are like them. Those who are in the minority, including ethnic minority groups, do not have that day-to-day luxury. They are more likely to feel excluded.

At work this plays out in critical areas. We are, for example, more likely to share secrets with someone of the same race as our own[4]. Ethnic minority employees have less access to confidential information, and, not unconnected to this point, are three times more likely than white people to have to apply for an upcoming roles using formal procedures rather than on a who-you-know basis.

Similarly, ethnic minority employees are also significantly less likely to have access to mentors at all, let alone senior mentors, again because those connections through the in-crowd. Ethnic minority employees are also significantly less likely than their white counterparts to be sought for work related advice[5].

Racism through exclusion is not an unfortunate inevitability that we can shrug our shoulders about in mock desperation. There are things that can be done. Creating an environment, for example, where people feel that it is safe to speak up and challenge at work goes hand-in-hand with feeling included. Ethic minority people are less likely to experience this sense of psychological safety at work. That can be fixed simply by inviting, encouraging and building on opinions rather than dismissing or riding roughshod over them. Chapter 12 in Binna’s book Racism at Work outlines 5 clear rules for Leaders, 5 clear rules for HR, 5 clear rules for L&D specialists and more. The research has been done. The knowledge is there. If only we can be bothered. Our laziness and desire to spend our time in our comfort zone is all that stands in our way.

1 O’Reilly, J. et al. (2014). Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work. Organization Science, 26 (3), pp. 774 – 793, permalink: https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2014.0900

2 K. M. Zosuls, C. L. Martin, D. N. Ruble et al., (2011). ‘It's not that we hate you’: understanding children's gender attitudes and expectancies about peer relationships,” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 288–304, 2011.

3 V. Lam, S. Guerrero, N. Damree, and I. Enesco, (2011). “Young children's racial awareness and affect and their perceptions about mothers' racial affect in a multiracial context,” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 842–864, 2011.

4 Louch, H. (2000). Personal network integration: transitivity and homophily in strong-tie relations. Social Networks, 22, pp.45 – 64.

5 Klein, K.J. et al (2004). How do they get there? An examination of the antecedents of centrality in team networks. Academy of Management Journal, 47 (6), 952–963.

Last week I took my family to see The Black Panther, Marvel’s latest superhero film. I’m not sure that I am the core target audience for the film, but nonetheless I enjoyed myself, as did my wife and daughters. If you haven’t seen it, the film tells the story of T’Challa, King of Wakanda, and his battle to save his nation from attack. His powers as the Black Panther – gained through a rare mineral in the ground of Wakanda – enable him to lead the country to safety.

I was amazed to hear that the film is Marvel’s 18th superhero film. Just as surprising is that this is the first superhero film with a black lead protagonist. I was struck by the comments of a black female reviewer who revealed that she finally had a brief glimpse of what it must be like for white cinema goers when they go to see a film with a white lead, white cast and – typically – black villain.

One of the most revealing chapters in Binna Kandola’s new book: Racism at Work – The Danger of Indifference focuses on race and leadership. The story of the Black Panther seems to illustrate well some of the significant, yet often overlooked challenges that organisations face when it comes to race and leadership.

While we actively and publicly seek to address gender imbalance, a similar problem with leadership persists yet is less noticed. Minorities are grossly under-represented in leadership positions. Only 4% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are minority ethnic, despite the BAME community of the UK making up 14% of the working population. And only 11% of CEOs in the US top 100 companies are people of colour (Diverse Magazine, 2017). As of last month, there were four (yes, four) black CEOs of Fortune 500 businesses but, with Ken Chenault stepping down as the CEO of American Express, that number has fallen by 25% (money.cnn.com, 2017). According to CNN, three black CEOs is ‘particularly staggering’, asking what impact this will have on the pipeline of future generations of black and minority leaders.

Clearly there are a wide range of social and political factors influencing the situation, but what are the key psychological factors? Here are just a few that you might want to consider:

1.Our images and expectations govern our judgements and decisions of who is likely to be a leader and, likewise, who is not. Beyond everyday racial stereotypes, we all have a picture in our head of what a leader is – known as ‘leadership prototypes’ – and these shape our views of how a leader should act and how they should look. Recent research examining the role of leadership prototypes and race has consistently found a pro-white bias, among white and minority participants.

2.Role models shape prototypes. A pro-white bias will have an impact on minorities and their self-perception as a leader, reducing awareness of leadership qualities and increasing the likelihood of not contending for leadership positions.

3.Networks matter. The way that we socialise in organisations – the people we spend time with – will influence the way that performance is evaluated and will determine opportunities to progress. Being in a dominant network typically brings the advantages of being more likely to be nominated for a leadership role, being supported by ‘significant others’ in the organisation and having access to more information about forthcoming opportunities.

These are just three of many influences – subconscious or unconscious – that shape our beliefs about leaders. Until we begin to openly discuss and become consciously more alert to these, then leadership pipelines will struggle with fair minority representation and organisations will continue to feel frustrated by the inequalities in leadership.

Finally, if we rely on time being the cure all to the problem, think again. The film Black Panther took 52 years to get the story to screen. Yes, 52 years. That’s despite attempts in the 90’s to make the film. Why did it take so long? Who knows, but what we do know is that time doesn’t make a film. The actors, directors, crews and producers make it – with vision, tenacity and a lot of conscious effort – which are precisely the qualities that will be needed to achieve race equality in organisational leadership.

If you are reading our newsletter, there is a good chance you are interested in all things diversity, inclusion and bias related. You may well also be involved in developing, supporting or leading some initiatives within your own organisation to improve diversity levels or inclusion ratings. But how do you know if you are doing the right thing?

One of the very common things we see in the space of diversity, inclusion and bias is that organisations take action or put initiatives in place simply because they see others doing something similar. Or they heard that something works for someone somewhere else. To our mind this is crazy. It’s a bit like taking a random drug because you feel unwell, but you know that the drug in question helped your neighbour when they last felt unwell. You have no real idea why you’re taking it, or what you think it will do, or indeed, what the consequences will be. The same can be said of D&I initiatives that are put in place without a real reason – people aren’t clear about what they’re trying to remedy, or what their action will achieve.

Getting the right diagnosis is critical to getting the right remedy and strategy in place, but we also know that undertaking this diagnosis can be somewhat daunting. Which is why we have been busy overhauling our approach to conducting diversity, inclusion and bias reviews to make them really accessible and easy to do. Our newly developed support packages now allow our clients to run diagnostics using four different levels.

Comprehensive diversity, inclusion and bias reviews

Based on our research and experience of conducting audits and reviews, our new approach to conducting diversity, inclusion and bias reviews means that these reviews can either be conducted for you by Pearn Kandola diversity specialists, or alternatively by key stakeholders within your organisation.

The review process, whether conducted by us or internally by you, addresses 6 critical components of activity that delineate those organisations who are making good progress on diversity, inclusion and bias, from those whose work is somewhat patchy.

The review is based around these 6 key components, and comprises a variety of measures, including online opinion sourcing, surveys, checklists, interviews and focus groups.

Whether you prefer to collect the date using Pearn Kandola diversity specialists or your own in-house team, we are here to provide practical support with reviewing the data, and developing clear action plans and strategic support. This support is based on over 30 years of experience in helping organisations to shift the dial on diversity and inclusion, and indeed, our insight and support sits behind many of the D&I strategies used by organisations around the world today.

Individual measures

To help individual managers and employees embed their learning around areas such as tackling unconscious bias and building an inclusive culture, we have also developed our own individual measures. These include the Inclusive Leader survey and report, which provides individual leaders with clear strengths and areas for development with regard to their current inclusive leadership style. For more information click here.

We have also partnered with The Bias Gym to develop Implicit Association Tests (IATs) for our clients. These tests were developed to measure traditional areas of unconscious bias such as gender or ethnicity, but we are now able to develop specific IATs in line with our clients' needs. For example, we recently developed an IAT exploring the attitudes of staff in two different, recently merged organisations to provide our client with a great insight into how best to avoid a “them” and “us” culture developing.

Live bias reviews of key decisions

For those who are really looking to diagnose exactly how unconscious bias is affecting the levels of diversity and inclusion across their organisation, live bias reviews are the ultimate diagnostic tool. Put simply, live bias reviews are where an expert in the area of unconscious bias joins a key decision making meeting happening in your organisation, for example a recruitment wash-up, an appraisal or bonus calibration meeting, a succession planning meeting or a promotion panel discussion, with the sole task of identifying the different types of bias that are affecting the decisions made, the cumulative impact of these decisions, as well as the most effective remedies to address them.

It is your choice whether a Pearn Kandola diversity specialist joins your meeting as the live bias expert, or if you would prefer us to train a core group of your colleagues to become your own internal live bias experts. Whichever route you go down, this diagnostic tool is extremely effective in helping people to understand exactly how bias, left unchecked, is allowing their decisions to result in less diverse and inclusive organisations. To watch a short video introduction to our live bias reviews click here.

For more information about Pearn Kandola's new diversity, inclusion and bias tools call call our Oxford office on 01865 399060 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Smoking continues to be a public health crisis, with estimated costs to the NHS at around £5 billion annually. Governments internationally have tightened legislation around smoking and are investing heavily in public health messaging to persuade people to stop smoking. However, recent research by the London School of Economics has found that these messages can stigmatise smokers, making them angry, defensive and lowering their self-esteem. The impact of this is that smokers are less likely to quit as a result. Government intention is positive, yet the outcome is not as intended.

Many organisations aim to be truly diverse employers and representative of society at large. Their struggle to achieve this target is driven by the clear advantages and benefits enjoyed by those organisations who are more representative. The intention that most organisations have is to recruit, retain and promote a more diverse workforce. However, much like government public health warnings related to smoking, organisational messaging is having the opposite effect. The language they use could be driving away diverse candidates, and discouraging diverse employees from seeking promotion.

The received wisdom that most organisations follow is to ensure their corporate websites have images of diverse employees and positive statements about diversity intention and performance. Many believe rightly that if they ignore these two themes they will reduce the attractiveness of their organisation to diverse candidates. However, organisations should be cautious. Positive diversity statements aligned with limited evidence of diversity in the organisation can lead potential employees to question the organisation’s integrity.

What most organisations also fail to realise is that the language they use to describe their vacancies can subtly signal whether diverse recruits will fit in or not.

Researchers have explored the impact of recruitment language both in terms of gender and ethnicity. What they have found is that despite organisations wanting to increase representation of diverse groups, the language used can have the opposite effect.

From a gender perspective, there are words that people associate more with men than women and vice versa. Use more masculine language and female job seekers will be put off, as they will conclude that the organisation is not a welcoming environment for women. Some of you will have come across websites such as ‘gender decoder’, which aim to highlight the use of masculine and feminine language in job adverts. Whilst interesting, the approach it leads to (removing masculine language) is a gross over-simplification. It can also make describing and assessing jobs very difficult. However, there are approaches that can overcome this problem.

Job adverts can also signal to minority ethnic applicants that they will not fit into an organisation. The mechanisms that lead to this are different to gender signalling. Where job adverts list traits that members of an ethnic minority community believe link to stereotypes that the ethnic majority may hold about them, they will be less likely to apply. In addition, further research has revealed that some job attributes (e.g. career development or level of autonomy) appeal more to some ethnic groups than others. It is important to remember that we can control and amend the subtle messages that job adverts communicate in order to support greater representation in our organisations.

To learn more about the language of attraction, join Rob Barkworth in London at his breakfast seminar on the 5th December 2017.

There’s been a lot in the UK news in recent weeks about gender stereotyping, and the impact it is having on children. In a recent example, a well-known shoe retailer was criticised for calling a line of its girl’s school shoes ‘Dolly Babe’, whilst the equivalent boy range was called ‘Leader’. The Guardian newspaper who commented on this also noted that the girl’s version contained pink inserts with hearts, whilst the boy’s version had a blue insert with footballs.

These subtle (or not so subtle) messages have always been around and not just in the UK. I shared this story when I was delivering diversity training in India, and one of the participants shared a story about her one year-old son. He had seen a shiny bracelet, and like many kids that age, wanted to play with it. Another mother saw this and said to the infant – ‘Are you a little girl?’ and the little boy immediately dropped it. Research shows that infants as young as three are learning gender stereotypes from their environment. Should a boy like a doll? Should a girl want to play with trucks? Can a boy be a nurse? There’s no doubt that gender stereotypes (and others) have had a role to play in the reality that we have created in organisations.

The recent media coverage shows that we are becoming much more attuned to gender stereotyping. Like me, you may have seen a number of posts on social media from parents who have committed to raising their kids without stereotyping. A major retailer in the UK added to this by launching gender neutral clothing – to mixed responses. So what is the answer? Should we be raising gender neutral children?

In my opinion - no. There needs to be a balance. Sharing aspects of our identity with others is an important part of our development. Research in the last decade is increasingly showing that having a common identity with others is critical for our self-esteem, developing social skills and well-being. Where social identities (gender or otherwise) become a problem is when people feel that they have to follow the dominant groups (e.g. only boys can play football), or when identities such as gender become associated with certain capabilities or professions. This only serves to close doors and put people into boxes which limits potential.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts with me @PK_JonathanT on Twitter.

There has been much furore about the recently leaked memo written by a Google employee in response to Google’s unconscious bias training and other initiatives to even out the numbers of men and women who work in tech roles at the business.

The author of the memo uses as the basis for his argument research conducted that shows differences between men and women on dimensions such as assertiveness, agreeableness and emotionality. He argues that these biological differences in part account for the low number of women in coding. What he does not address is what the root causes of these differences (which according to the original author of the research are very small and of no significance in work) are. From a neurological perspective, there are no differences between male and female brains, and therefore there are no differences between men and women in terms of ability or interest. The differences identified in the original research are as a result of nurture and not nature. In other words, it’s the stereotypes that are held about men and women which have so influenced boys and girls in their formative years that these differences become true in later life. By citing the research out of context and failing to consider the cause for the differences identified, the author is propagating stereotypes that are held about women.

Further, when he considers the qualities of leadership (which he linked to assertiveness) he is demonstrating that he holds a masculine stereotype of leadership, and this way of thinking can lead to women being less likely to be considered for a leadership role. Similarly, in relation to emotionality, the author stated that women are more emotional than men and thus may not cope so well with high stress jobs. This view propagates that women are too emotional and decrease their chances of being considered for high stress roles, thus ultimately blocking progression into senior roles which are often seen as high stress.

Overall, the Google memo is an example of the way women face “double binds” in the workplace. If they behave in a stereotypically masculine way, they are penalized for not being feminine enough. Alternatively, if they behave in a stereotypically feminine manner, they are penalized for being weak (or in this case neurotic and too agreeable). This form of bias, known as an attribution error, often excludes women from roles that require leadership - keeping them out of traditionally masculine fields, and ultimately holding them back. In response, we must continue to raise awareness of bias in a way that includes and engages all, and recognise that whilst there may be some small differences between men and women, these differences are firstly not genetic, and secondly have no impact on the ability of women to perform effectively in the workplace.

We have been working with professional services firms for over ten years and during that time have anecdotally noticed the focus on technical expertise. Although this technical expertise has clear benefits for clients, we have also noticed, that there is less focus on development from a leadership perspective, which in many firms is seen as less important. From a talent pipeline perspective this has often resulted in highly talented and successful individuals not progressing into key leadership roles, not because they do not have the ability to do so, but because they have not had the opportunity to develop these skills or have not had the feedback to help them prioritise them as a development area.

Recently we decided to test this anecdotal experience with some data. We looked at data that we held for lawyers (a profession where technical ability is very prized) against a wide range of people with similar levels of experience who worked in industry. The ability to lead and manage people did indeed differentiate the successful lawyers from the less successful lawyers (in terms of future promotion to Partner) as it did the people working in a corporate environment. However, the difference in people management skills between those lawyers that were promoted and those that were not was smaller than between those promoted and not promoted in a corporate environment, and overall, those in a corporate environment were better at people management than the group of lawyers.

This is the first piece of more rigorous evidence we have to support our anecdotal observations, and it raises the question as to how generalizable this finding is for other technical roles such as engineers, actuaries, accountants, medical consultants to name but a few? Whatever the answer is to that question, the best lawyers are those that have the soft skills to lead and manage people, with underlying behaviours and skills such as ‘building relationships’, ‘questioning and listening’, ‘coaching skills’. These fundamental skills also overlap with skills such as ‘influencing’, ‘business development’ and ‘building relationships’. What this means in reality is that highly gifted and successful lawyers are promoted into senior leadership roles with a set of leadership skills that do not match their technical capabilities.

Why is this important? In our opinion they relate to longer term metrics in organisations such as engagement and motivation, and diversity related issues such as inclusion, attraction and promotion of underrepresented groups. What this means in practice is that these skills need to be considered in people development at a much earlier stage than they currently are. Certainly, for lawyers and, very possibly in other roles where technical ability is highly prized.

Top of page
Subscribe to the Pearn Kandola blog feed.
PK BLOGGERS