We have a choice here as businesses, to say ‘well that is the way it always was’, shrug our shoulders and pay no more attention, or we can do something more proactive which will benefit our businesses. That more positive choice is to celebrate the differences between the genders, to also challenge our inherent unconscious bias and actively work to overcome the stereotyping. How are both these assertions mutually able to co-exist?
Firstly people are people, with all of our glorious differences and challenges. We all have strengths, the ability to focus 100% on the person/people in front of us, supporting people whilst they go through difficult times, inspiring people to achieve more than they thought possible of themselves. These are all great examples of such strengths. Are any of these strengths gender specific? Most of what I have described here are human traits based on respect (listening attentively), being a good colleague by offering a helping hand or listening well, and leadership skills (encouraging and cheering people on to achieve the best they can do). We are quick to try and attach labels to people such as ‘he is assertive’, ‘she is gentle’. This helps us make sense of the world. But as human beings we are so much more complex than a simple label. We come with personality, skills we have honed over the years, areas we need to develop. We are imperfect yet wonderful.
There is much written and spoken about unconscious bias, particularly when it comes to recruiting talent. As human beings we look at others in comparison to ourselves and determine degrees of ‘sameness’ and of difference. We then unconsciously decide whether they are either supporting our opinion and beliefs or challenging them. This is a dangerous road to go down as we are filtering much more useful information out, simply because of the learned strategies we use when making sense of the world. We are mostly completely unaware of ourselves doing this, and subsequently we can completely underestimate them either positively or negatively. This process of making our minds up about people relates to gender traits, social background and a long list of other criteria we use to sift and shape a variety of ‘data’. It is a dangerous path to tread.
For employers, the best approach to overcoming these pitfalls is through a combination of consultation and the use of good quality psychometric and assessment tools. Whilst there is a certain amount of gut instinct involved when it comes to assessing someones’ leadership capability, this should be combined with unbiased processes to get a more measured view. This also challenges any assumptions that may be made about that individual based on their gender. Whilst they may indeed show qualities typically associated with leaders of their particular sex, it’s more likely that they will possess a wealth and combination of skills and qualities which assessment tools can identify quickly. What’s more, this process can identify ways to build on strengths and nurture qualities which will ultimately benefit the teams that person works with.
So, undoubtedly, we will continue to subconsciously give co-workers and others ‘labels’ based on our own character assessments. Maybe you associate a colleague as being gentle, supportive, assertive, inspiring, and visionary. However, these positive traits will be found in men and women, and the differences should be celebrated. The combination of these strengths across a leadership team will mean the business keeps the team engaged and is actually more resilient in tough times. The smart companies who will weather the good times and the bad, and will outperform competitors are the ones that recognise the diverse qualities of their people, creating an environment for them to thrive being the best possible version of themselves.
Bev White is Managing Director, Penna Careers Services, at Penna Plc. She joined Penna in 2002 and has led Penna’s Career Transition business into the number one position in the UK market place in the private sector. White is a main board director of Penna PLC. White’s earlier career included seven years as CIO of NtL and prior to that as director I.T. for Schlumberger. Today, she is chair of the Career Star group, which delivers to over 70 Countries across the globe, and president of the UK Association of Career Firms and of the European Board for the Association of Career Firms.