Finding the levers for gender equality

A while ago, I asked a Government department what data it had on the gender and ethnic distribution at different levels and in different functions. Not surprisingly, it had a lot, at considerable depth of detail. Then I asked the critical question: “Can you give me a single example, where this data has resulted in a promotion or career-enhancing lateral move for an individual. After much reflection (and quite a bit of soul-searching) the answer was “no”.

It’s an age-old problem. Macro-scale, generic data can be useful in creating policy and monitoring its impact over time, but policy implementation comes down to multitudes of small decisions, where generic data has little or no influence or relevance.

To make change happen on the micro scale, a different, more systemic approach is needed. In the case of the Government department, we spent time exploring another critical question: “Where are the fulcrums – the levers that will exert maximum influence on decisions about individuals and their careers?” One fulcrum stood out – reputation-building project teams. Research in recent years has shown that just doing your main job well is a hygiene factor in career management terms. To be noticed as “talent” it’s important to contribute beyond your job description. That gets people appointed to projects, which have high stakes and high visibility. And that in turn helps them build the kind of track record that reinforces their reputation.

Unfortunately, research also shows that men are far more likely to be appointed to these reputation-building project teams than women. Moreover, when men are given project teams to run, they typically have higher budgets and higher headcount than their female counterparts.

So how can organizations use this knowledge to bring about micro-level change that will aggregate into macro-level change? In this instance, the proposed solution (still not implemented, sadly) is for each of the divisional heads to identify quarterly upcoming projects that fulfil the criteria as potentially reputation-building, then to actively manage the membership of these specific teams. The process can be reinforced by:

  • Raising awareness of the issue
  • Providing training on how to be an effective member of a project team
  • Allowing and encouraging people to make the case for how they could contribute to the project team
  • Making (leadership) development one of the core objectives of project teams – so success is measured in terms of both task achievement and learning

Taking a systemic perspective can identify a wide variety of fulcrums. For example, when (and if) women return to work after maternity leave they often often subtle but powerful biases and barriers that slow down or even halt their career progress. A systemic approach would:

  • Identify those barriers (both those generated internally by the employee and those generated by her environment)
  • Map how they interact with each other (and especially how they are mutually reinforcing)
  • Look for solutions that address all of the barriers in an integrated manner.

In this case, two fulcrums seems to be the quality of conversations that returning mums have with themselves, their peers and their boss(es), and also their sense of connectedness, both whilst away and when they return. So a combination of well-designed communication and maternity mentoring is at least part of the answer,

If gender inequality were a simple issue, it would have been resolved a long time ago. It continues to be problem, because the solutions offered typically stem from simple, linear thinking; and from macro-thinking rather than a combination of macro and micro. Superficial remedies produce superficial results. It’s time to seek ways to make the system work in favour of gender equality.

© David Clutterbuck, 2015

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