Equality for women: what’s the problem?

Wendy Cartwright – Chair of GDP Advisory Board – June 2014

Without doubt, western society is more tolerant now than it was in the 1970s, when equality legislation started to establish rights that we now take for granted.  Over the years, organisations have gradually moved away from pure compliance and the concept of ‘levelling the playing field’. Nowadays many organisations focus more on diversity and inclusivity strategies to establish themselves as employers that are welcoming to all groups of people, and representative of the customers and stakeholders they serve.

The current state of anti-discrimination legislation in Europe is quite sophisticated with multiple ‘protected characteristics’.  Organisations and societal understanding, general tolerance and even celebration of difference are much improved from the late 20th century.  However, even in the areas where it is easiest to measure difference in treatment, such as gender, much evidence of inequality of treatment still exists, although progress is being made.

2013 UK figures showed that on average women working full-time earn £5K less per annum than men. Across the private sector, the overall pay gap was 19.9% – higher than the still substantial gap of 13.6% in the public sector. Of course, this is a much better picture than when the Equal Pay Act 1970 became law, when the gender pay gap in the UK was estimated at circa 45%.

Moreover, the concerted effort that has gone into shining a light on the underrepresentation of women on Boards is beginning to show real progress. In 2011, women only made up 12.5% of FTSE100 Boards. In January 2014, that figure had reached 20.7%, and the UK appears to be on track for reaching its target of women representing 25% of FTSE100 Boards by 2015.

Such progress is laudable, but there is much more to be done. So what might still be holding women back from reaching true equality in the workplace? Could it be that the answer lies with the ‘unconscious biases’ that we all have?

Neuro-psychologists state that our unconscious biases are hard-wired as a basic protective mechanism: we prefer people who look like us, sound like us and behave like us. As we were evolving as a species this protection mechanism was vital to be able to spot and deal with the threats posed by the unknown – such as animal predators or aggressors from a hostile tribe.

Our unconscious brain processes and sifts vast amounts of information looking for patterns – 200,000 times more information than the conscious mind. When the unconscious brain starts to identify patterns it starts to anticipate those connections and begins to wire them together neurally.

Unconscious bias operates below our conscious awareness.  It results in almost unnoticeable judgements. These judgements lead seamlessly to behaviours, such as helping out someone by prompting them in an important meeting, making allowances for a interview candidate’s nerves or making assumptions about individuals without checking whether those assumptions are right.

Some of the unconscious biases we may hold, for example about women who are mothers, will have a fairly obvious impact on decision making on job offers and assumptions about a woman’s leadership capability.

So let’s take something seemingly unrelated, like the height of a person. Less than 15% of Americans – but nearly 60% of US corporate CEOs – are over 6ft tall. The same pattern is true of military leaders and senior politicians – with most being well above average height.  Could it be that we are pre-programmed to equate height with leadership capabilities?  If so, what is the potential impact on our male/female leadership choices when the average height of women worldwide is 5ft4in and that of men is 5ft9in?

The evidence about the existence of unconscious bias means that a shift in thinking is required.  If we pay attention to and try to mitigate the effects of our own biases, whether they are conscious or not, we will end up with better-balanced businesses, mitigate against group-think and be better placed to deal with the increasingly global market-place and major demographic shifts.

And that infamous glass ceiling that women face in organisations and wider society might just be broken forever.

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