This year is the 110th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. There is a real and growing concern that work towards diversity and inclusion has receded due to the impact of COVID-19 on organizations.
This year’s theme of #ChooseToChallenge is timely and appropriate in encouraging women to challenge gender inequalities and speak up against businesses and institutions that are not doing enough. All of us have a part to play, and organizations can and must be facilitators for change.
Women in STEM
The technology sector has a huge problem attracting female talent. This comes as no surprise when we consider many women’s experiences within the sector, particularly at industry events.
Ensono’s recent survey of 500 women who attended tech conferences across the UK and US found that one in three experienced sexual harassment at these events. 61% reported that tech conferences were not designed with women in mind, to the extent that some events did not even have female bathrooms.
The situation was worse for women of colour, 59% of whom reported experiencing discrimination at these events, compared with 43% of white women.
These figures point to a deep-rooted problem within the industry. To encourage women into the sector, organizations need to work together to build a more inclusive culture where women can feel welcomed and valued. Traditional ideas of who ‘belongs’ in the industry need to be challenged, and hiring practices need to reflect this shift.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Attracting female talent to the sector is important, but existing female talent within the sector must also be supported and nurtured.
Companies that recognize their lack of gender diversity typically look to redress the balance by hiring women at the top. The problem with this strategy is that women at lower levels of these organizations get left behind.
To address the lack of female talent within organizations in a sustainable way, we need to look at the bigger picture. We need to nurture women at the lower levels, from junior female associates to those at middle management level.
Leadership should provide mentoring and invest in training. This training can be targeted to each individual’s role, but might also include broader topics, such as public speaking. With specific measures such as these in place, women will be better able to progress their careers internally.
Implementing practical measures is only one part of the solution. Real change can only come about if we change our mentalities and challenge ingrained social stereotypes and biases that hold back women in the workplace.
Women face double standards at work on a day-to-day basis. While men are praised and admired for being confident and powerful, similar traits in women are too often treated with contempt. An assertive or opinionated woman simply doing her job risks being called ‘bossy’ or ‘emotional’.
These social stereotypes work insidiously to undermine women in the workplace and hamper their progression. The only way to challenge this behaviour is to facilitate open discussion among employees and to draw attention to the ways in which unconscious biases has a real and damaging impact.
Educating the workforce on these issues will help everyone to be more aware of their words and actions, and will contribute towards building a fairer society, as well as a more inclusive workplace.
Women supporting women
Women should be made to feel comfortable with the power they have. One way to facilitate this is to provide more opportunities for women at work to support each other.
Internalized misogyny means that women themselves can unknowingly contribute to harmful stereotypes that impact women in the workplace. Unconscious bias training can help counteract these internalized biases, but more concrete spaces for working women to interact can also be valuable.
Whether it be through focus groups, networking events, or female only lunch groups, creating spaces for women to share their experiences enables the building of support networks that foster confidence.
Collaboration helps lift other women up. In Obama’s Whitehouse, his female aides adopted a strategy they called ‘amplification’. When one woman made a point, another would repeat the same point, giving credit to the author. This ensured women’s voices could not be ignored and that their contributions were heard.
There is always more to be done when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We have a long way to go, but implementing these strategies will help us work towards a more equal and inclusive world.
Personally, I have benefited in my career from the support of a strong boss who encourages me to voice my own opinion.
If we build these kinds of support networks throughout our industry, women will have the opportunity to grow and to shape the direction of change.