gender diversity

“The problem is not a lack of canaries… it is the lack of oxygen!”

As I was volunteering at a Drag Queen event this week, I couldn’t help but ponder the issue of gender diversity. Or the lack of gender diversity in the workplace. Spending my career in the resources industry in a STEM environment, has had its challenges. From being the only female on an oil rig in 1988, to being the only female in important business meetings in the 21st century!

As I heard a couple of years ago at a conference: “the problem is not a lack of canaries, it is the lack of oxygen”. And that is so true. 

Bullying, nepotism, shouting, aggressive behaviour, “harmless banter”, coffee with mates, the “Friday lunch session with the boys”, …… 

A November 2021 report into Australian Parliamentary Workplaces noted:

” …. too often, we heard that these workplaces are not safe environments for many people within them, largely driven by power imbalances, gender inequality and exclusion and a lack of accountability. Such experiences leave a trail of devastation for individuals and their teams, and undermine the performance of our Parliament to the nation’s detriment.” 

Australian Human Rights Commission: Set the Standard, November 2021

Sadly, this report is not a surprise. The parliament is like a large company, and a lot of the issues mentioned in this report are a reflexion of the culture that is still too common in companies where gender splits are nowhere close to 50/50 across the board. That latter part is important. As an example, in STEM based companies the majority of females can be found clustered in the HR, administration and finance departments. But unless a healthy diversity balance is achieved in each part of the organisation, issues remain.

The business case for diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the organisation is stronger than ever “Diversity Wins” (McKinsey, May 19, 20202 report)

“…. latest analysis reaffirms the strong business case for both gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership and shows that this business case continues to strengthen. The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability…”

McKinsey, May 19, 2020

I attended a workshop on diversity once where the attendees were asked a number of questions, forcing us to separate in two groups. Over the course of the workshop, everybody got an opportunity to be part of a minority group. The objective was to have all attendees experience being a minority at least for once. And it is true, unless you have been part of a minority, you really don’t know how that feels. Then imagine that feeling on a daily basis, and year after year. 

Most companies aim to recruit on a 50/50 gender split; similar number of males and females. However, this balance gets quickly skewed when you start looking at the diversity split higher up the career ladder, especially in STEM based companies, amongst team leaders, and then managers and executives. This was defined in the early 1990’s as “the leaking pipeline” and despite a large number of studies and articles is still very prevalent today.

  • Don’t women want to get promoted or are they not good enough? Surely, the couple of months of maternity leave, taken over a 30+ year career, can’t have that much of an impact?
  • Why don’t women want to continue to work in areas they have spent several years studying for, and were excited joining? What changed?

I remember stepping into an important strategic session in a business unit that proudly recorded having 30% females. To my surprise, there were no other females in the room, just me and 17 men. I thought I was senior enough to make a comment about that without being shut down, and indeed one other female was quickly found to attend the meeting. However, I also felt very strongly that I received a “difficult” notch from the responsible executive.

In an assurance role I (small blond female) have tested providing technical feedback to an executive, and had one of my male team members (60+ white male) providing the same technical feedback to the same person. The response was noticeably different. And yes, like my fellow female peers, my response on noticing this was “well, at least the message got through, so it is a good result for the company”. Looking back though, I now have serious reservations about the validity of that response. Why didn’t I make a point of it?

As women hit peri-menopause one of the well-documented symptoms is a sharp decline in the nurturing, maternal instinct that characterises one’s 20s and 30s. We become less tolerant of work environments that don’t value us, and vote with our feet.

It would be interesting to see the statistics, several of my former female peers are reading this blog from the comfort of their “early retirement / sea change”. However, it might make companies even less keen on hiring women over the age of 45!

Some thoughts on what could be done:

  1. Talk about it, bring the issue in the open. Without being honest and acknowledging the problem we will not be able to improve the environment. 
  2. Build an awareness that usually only the “difficult” women will bring issues to the surface. It takes a lot of courage to speak up. Take it as a serious issue!
  3. HR often are aware of what is happening but want to get formal complaints before they can act (via a whistle blower policy or directly). 
  4. All vacancies should always have a diversity of realistic applicants, which includes females. If there are no suitable females, an urgent review of the succession plans are needed.
  5. Once hired, ensure females feel safe in the work environment. 
    • This could include for example simple design changes to ensure discreet and safe access to a bathroom that has a free supply of sanitary products. 
    • Safe after-hours office / workplace access and protocols and taxi rides home.
    • Introducing gender suitable work wear. 
    • Talk to your staff, especially newly hired staff as they will not have become “to accustomed” to the “way we work here” to identify problem areas.
  6. In meetings, ensure all attendees have a chance to speak up. With softer voices women can find it hard to get heard. We are all familiar with the concept of needing a male to repeat our comments / ideas, and get frustrated feeling that “as long as it has been heard” is enough.
  7. Female-only exit interviews for ALL women who leave the company, be it voluntarily, via redundancy or performance management. Creating a safe environment, where an honest conversation can take place that doesn’t boomerang back is essential.

I would encourage everybody to take the Harvard “Implicit Association Test”, which reveals your hidden or subconscious biases on a number of topics including age, gender, and race. Be honest about the results to yourself, so you can work on it!

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