Neil Buck: Let’s stop gender bias in business

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Last week in the HR world I came across two studies and a report that courted a lot of publicity and clearly indicate women are still being held back by ongoing gender bias.

Unilever commissioned an international study involving 9000 men and women across eight markets, called ‘The Unstereotyped Mindset‘.

The following stats are what the survey found:

  • 77% of men and 55% of women believe that a man is the best choice to lead a high stakes project.
  • Additionally, 60% of women and 49% of men felt that stereotypes personally affect their career, their personal life, or both.
  • Men and women alike said they struggle speaking up about workplace discrimination and inappropriate behaviour.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of women reported feeling that they are ‘pressured’ to ‘get over’ inappropriate behaviour. Just over half (55%) of men and even more (64%) women believe that men do not challenge each other on such behaviour.

Three quarters of respondents placed the responsibility for taking action on senior leaders, highlighting there is a responsibility on leaders in an organisation to address this issue.

Interestingly, The World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report notes that we may not achieve economic equality among men and women for another 170 years!

The other survey I came across on the same subject was a CMI survey of 851 UK managers.

It found that inappropriate remarks, gender bias in recruitment and promotion decisions, and gender inequality in pay and rewards are still proving major barriers to gender equality in many organisations.

It revealed that four in five managers have witnessed some form of gender discrimination or bias at work in the past 12 months.

Reassuringly, the survey also suggested light on the horizon for women – it showed male managers strongly support gender parity, with 84% in favour of a gender balanced workplace and revealed that three-quarters believe men in senior leadership roles have a particular responsibility to support the career development of talented women.

And this was in the same week there was a joint report released from the Parliamentary Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee, called ‘High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes‘ which said the Equality Act 2010 should ban discriminatory dress rules at work, but in practice the law is not applied properly to protect workers of either gender.

This all stemmed from a well-publicised incident last year when London receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home from work in December 2015 for not wearing high heels.

MPs heard from women asked to wear shorter skirts and unbutton blouses for male Christmas shoppers, and of dress codes detailing nail varnish shade and hair root colour.

So, discrimination and victimisation does still go on, and in some sectors more than others, with such things as dress codes and quite rightly it shouldn’t.

The report’s key recommendations, as well as increasing publicity of employer’s obligations, is that the existing law should be enforced more vigorously, with employment tribunals being given the power to apply bigger financial penalties.

However, I would suggest that the real issue stems from a societal approach as to how people are treated as children and hence behave according to stereotype in adulthood.

Looking to leaders and employers to resolve these continuing issues is just one part of a whole host of changes that are needed for gender bias not to be prevalent and hold anyone back from their true potential.

There needs to be a conscious effort to change the status quo by parents, nurseries, schools, recreational facilities, government policy and businesses – big and small – to start to challenge the stereotypes that feed the current inequality and halt progression.

We have all been privy to it at some point e.g. boys being dressed more in blue and playing with the more energetic and fun related things, girls dressed in pink and involved with hair and makeup, the ‘softer’ sort of things; girls almost subconsciously treated as though they haven’t the wherewithal to do those more exciting things that boys have traditionally done and then acting to type in adulthood.

I’ve even done it myself as a parent with my own daughter so I’m as guilty as the next parent in fuelling the gender bias!

Yes, of course leaders and managers at all levels must recognise and stop any behaviour that discriminates against women and proactively encourage equality within their workplace.

Steps such as championing better flexible working arrangements and mentoring women could help as well as doing the ‘little things’ e.g. giving everyone an equal chance to be heard in meetings, stopping the ‘locker room’ banter (I won’t mention Donald Trump, don’t worry!) and so on.

But I would argue that actually this isn’t an employers problem at all, the gender bias we are still sadly seeing in the workplace today is simply just a manifestation of how people, male and female, have always been brought up since the day they were born.