Sector News

One is the new zero: A single woman on a board isn’t enough to create change

August 27, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion

There are lots of really interesting initiatives around women and the workplace in Australia but the question is now whether it’s translating into culture change or progress, according to Deborah Gillis the CEO of US-based women and work research firm Catalyst.

The reporting data collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the Male Champions of Change are examples of steps ahead but there are still deeply entrenched cultural dynamics to shift here and in other countries, says Gillis, who is in Australia this week to launch a new report, The secret to inclusion in Australian workplaces: psychological safety.

There’s no doubt a different conversation on women and work is happening in many parts of the world.

“That’s a positive indication that says if you don’t have women (at all levels) there’s something wrong. Companies are paying attention in a way they wouldn’t have even 10 years ago,” Gillis says.

A strong sign of that change is that these days having one woman on a board or in a government cabinet really stands out.

“So one is the new zero – it’s socially unacceptable to have no women on a board so you go and find one and then say ‘we’re done’.”

That kind of compliance thinking is in for an overhaul and is best tackled by behavioural change, Gillis says.

“Companies don’t make change, people do and it comes from leaders and individuals shifting their mindsets and behaviours to not only understand they have unconscious bias but the way they behave has to change, as well as the policies and practices and how are job descriptions being written and so on,” she says.

It’s a long way from business efforts which hinge on a remedial approach to ‘fixing’ women – by telling them to be more confident, better negotiators and speak up  – so they fit in to traditional work systems.

Instead Catalyst has been focusing on research and training on inclusive leadership – which is about making employees who feel they are ‘other’ or not part of the main cohort are supported and can do their job well. That’s not just about gender but includes everything from race, to ethnicity, age and geography, Gillis says.

An extraordinary 60,000 people from 200 countries took part in an online training course on inclusive leadership that Catalyst ran earlier this year, and 60% of the learners were men with an average age of 31.

“We are getting that group in the middle and they are wanting to know how to change,” she says. “It’s a very different way of thinking and is redefining the notions of leadership in modern workplaces from all dimensions – it’s not just cultural but about changing the stereotypical norms of what a leader looks like.”

The Australian research found that our culture is full of contradictions – like many other countries – and although we might like to think of ourselves as egalitarian and unimpressed by authority, our society is highly stratified and workplaces are hierarchical.

And while we place great emphasis on high performance, Australians are often uncomfortable with lauding top achievers – the tall poppy syndrome.

The research included about 250 men and women employees from a wide range of Australian organisations.

Women who felt like an “other” were less likely to be in positions of power and received fewer promotions according to Catalyst, and may be less likely to feel safety than their male counterparts, and feel inhibited in taking interpersonal risks.

But leadership which helps employees feel included fits in well to Australia’s sense of a fair go because it’s about “a climate of safety where “everyone has each other’s back.”

The employees surveyed felt more included when managers supported them to succeed; held them accountable for doing good work; courageously took risks to uphold their principles; and were humble enough to admit and learn from mistakes.

Employees who saw this behaviour from their managers most often rated their psychological safety at work 80% higher than those who least saw the behaviours.

The more psychological safety employees felt, the more they felt included in their work groups. And the more employees reported feeling included, the more they reported being more innovative at work—suggesting new ideas and approaches to problems, and identifying opportunities for new products or processes.

They were also more likely to make discretionary efforts to help their teams, Catalyst found.

The other benefits from the approach are in single-gendered workgroups and for women in fields traditionally dominated by men because these kinds of leaders make sure they recognize issues that are difficult to discuss, such as gender equality, and bring them up with the team.

These skills are particularly important as employers understand that the way workplaces worked in the past would not be sufficient in the future, Gillis says.

“There’s greater transparency through social media and the shift is that influence and authority came from position and title but now it’s from the number of twitter follower you have. And views of what leadership looks like are also changing.”

By Catherine Fox

Source: Smart Company

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