Breaking down barriers to address ongoing inequality
14 January 2021
Claire Lane, Head of S&R Operational Services at the National Trust and current Executive MBA participant, reflects on what we can do at both an individual level as well as at an organisational level to prioritise diversity and inclusion within the work place.
What a year 2020 has been. A year when many of us have had to suspend our normal way of life, a year when we’ve supported family, friends and colleagues through loss and difficult times as we all tried to adapt in ways few of us saw coming at the start of the year.
As we moved into 2021, I took a little time to reflect on where I’ve got to and on the things that have helped me and the things that might have held me back. I found myself reflecting on the successes and struggles of others and thinking about how some of those might parallel with mine. And I found myself wondering how I might be able to help others if they might be struggling with similar things.
There are definitely some positives to have come through during 2020:
- Workplaces became more flexible than ever before and whilst I’m definitely feeling some Webex fatigue and can’t wait to see my colleagues face to face again, I’m also really hoping that companies will continue to allow employees to maintain those levels of flexibility.
- More workplaces seemed to dial up support for wellbeing initiatives, encouraging employees to find a healthy work/life balance and lending support for mental health and employee support initiatives.
- MBA programmes saw a surge in applicants from women which has got to be a brilliant step forward – I’m so excited about being one of them!
And whilst I’m buoyed by these positives, I’m also concerned because some articles I’ve read have suggested that women’s jobs are more vulnerable following the Covid-19 crisis because of existing gender inequalities. Women are more likely to work in sectors negatively impacted by the crisis and women still tend to pick up a greater proportion of unpaid care work resulting in more women reverting to part time work or removing themselves from the workplace altogether. I cite this with no judgement whatsoever, I can 100% relate to how difficult it’s been to balance work and home-school at various points through 2020 and again now in 2021, and I’m lucky to have a husband who genuinely picks up a fair share of the household chores, I merely call it out to highlight that the implications of this trend is an increase in gender inequality and a risk of many more women losing out on economic security.
So what are my hopes for 2021? What more can be done? As I reflected, I realised that there are things that we can do for ourselves:
- I’ve always had to consciously work on my own self-confidence. The honesty of role models like Jacinda Ardern speaking about her imposter syndrome made me realise that some of the people I admire the most have that self-consciousness and channel it into their preparation and decision making. It’s taken me time with some brilliant mentors and coaches to understand what my unique strengths are, to value them and to understand which ones give me energy. Now more than ever before, I’ve consciously decided that it’s time to have courage and push myself outside of my comfort zone. And if negative head talk pops in, I consciously change the narrative to be positive, focusing on what I can achieve and give it my best shot.
- I’ve realised that it’s normal not to always be completely clear on the exact outcome or how exactly to achieve something. No one, however confident they might appear, has all the answers. I’ve realised that the most successful teams are made up of people with a diverse set of outlooks, experiences and strengths and who dive in, collaborate and take things a step at a time, testing and improving things in an agile way.
- I’ve realised that a bit of pressure and stress can be a positive thing. I’ve learnt that it’s important to stay calm and level-headed and to think about the context – what’s the worst that could happen? Often that worst case isn’t so dreadful – and that can help you stay calm and focused on how to prevent that worst case – allowing you and your team to prioritise.
- I’ve learnt that self-check-ins are really important to manage my own stress levels. I know who’s in my trusted support network. I know who I can lean on without worrying about the fear of judgement. I know my boundaries. With the constant WFH – I’ve realised there are challenges that come with being ‘always on’; the blending of work and homelife. I genuinely love work – but it’s important to have a balance. I know my stress releases and I make time for them: running, being with family and friends, being outdoors, being in touch with nature – the things that declutter my mind. I’ve finally learnt that as a leader – I’m a role model – so I need to model these things and encourage my team to do the same for long-term sustainability.
- I’ve learnt to be resilient. I think it was Hilary Clinton who said: ‘Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there’s truth or merit in it – try to learn from it, otherwise forget about it!’
And whilst there are clearly heaps of things we can do personally, having read some eye opening books in 2020, like ‘Biased’ by Dr Jennifer Eberhardt, ‘Blindspot’ by Mahzarin Banaji and ‘Rebel ideas’ by Matthew Syed – it’s really opened my eyes to systemic and often unconscious bias. As a society, we’re operating in a world of unprecedented change, we have to think differently. We can’t apply the things we’ve always applied and expect them to succeed in our current global environment facing challenges like coronavirus, inequality, world conflict and climate change. We need innovation, creativity and collaboration and we need to break free from the echo chambers that surround us. With the scale of the global challenge currently facing us, diversity and inclusion isn’t just a nice to have – it’s essential that we work together to pool our collective intelligence to address some of these challenges for long-term sustainability.
So, as much as we have a personal responsibility, equally organisations have a responsibility to prioritise diversity and inclusion, to increase the diversity in senior teams and to remove bias from recruitment and performance processes:
- The right culture needs to be created and led from the top. Leaders need to speak openly and honestly about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They need to establish and communicate a company-specific business case so that all employees understand the benefits of diversity and play an active role in its implementation.
- Recruitment bias (conscious and unconscious) affects under-represented groups throughout their career. People hire people like them. Job descriptions, assessment of prospects and success frameworks are based on the manager’s own values and working style. Organisations should operate bias training for recruiting managers, use neutral language in job adverts, blinding techniques in application screening and apply a structured approach to conducting interviews with clear evaluation criteria.
- Promote positive role models. A recent report published by execpipeline.com found that just 5% of firms are led by a female CEO. That needs to change. It makes a difference.
- Mentorship and sponsorship have helped me tremendously in my career and given the current gender representation at the top, the active engagement of men is paramount. More men need to become allies to women and under-represented groups at work.
- Talent programmes and investment and funding for scholarships to enable underrepresented groups to develop the knowledge and leadership skills required to progress. Women are generally in lower paid roles; they are more likely to need practical financial support to get the training required to progress. A £40,000 investment for an MBA without a scholarship isn’t a viable option for the vast majority of women.
- Networking opportunities. I focus on getting the job done. I’m not so great at telling people I’m doing well. Organisations could overcome this by setting up high performer networking opportunities (during the day to avoid childcare difficulties). Bringing high performing men and women together to debate topics of the day, opening up strategy conversations and providing an opportunity to network with those higher up, to coach and support each other and to build relationships to fuel pipelines at all levels.
- Introduce parent-friendly policies. Offer on-site childcare. Encourage men to take longer periods of paternity leave with male managers making it the norm. Allow for flexible work arrangements. Run talks on work-life balance with external speakers to normalise and give employees the chance to share experiences. Operate ‘keep in touch’ programmes with employees on parental leave.
There are so many things organisations can do, but most fundamentally, everybody has to understand the business, human and societal benefits that come from breaking down the barriers to address ongoing inequality.
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