Research published in 2015 in Nature Climate Change states that the thermal comfort model—the model used to regulate the temperature in many offices and public buildings across the developed world—is based on the metabolic rates of a 154 pound, 40 year old man.
Women are generally smaller with more body fat and less muscle than this. As such, they have lower metabolic rates than men. The result? They sit in their offices feeling slightly cold, slightly uncomfortable, and slightly out of place. This is a reality even on International Women’s Day 2017 as I write this reflection.
“Hold on Dianne”, you might say. “Professional services firm, Grant Thornton’s latest survey of 5,500 businesses in 36 countries has found that women still only account for around a quarter of senior management roles and only an eighth of CEO roles, and you are worrying about office heating. And all this in a time when McKinsey & Co have more or less proved that companies with the highest proportion of women in leadership positions deliver the greatest returns to shareholders. Shouldn’t you be getting your priorities right?”
My response is that you are both right and wrong! Right in that there are major issues that we need to address in rectifying gender discrimination that remains a significant brake on women’s progression to the highest level of many organizations. Wrong in that the seemingly trivial example of office temperature is one of many forms of insidious but extremely effective types of workplace discrimination—subliminal discrimination! Discrimination that is unnoticed because it is unconscious and informed by biases that few of us, men and women, pay any attention to. It is precisely these persuasive biases that form much of the foundation that sustains the discriminatory edifice that we face today!
Thankfully, legislation and a dramatic shift in societal attitudes have moved us on from the days when women were openly patronized and blocked in the corporate world. However, what we have been far less effective at tackling is the quiet, but consistent message that women are somehow just not as capable as men. A message informed by unconscious bias that perpetuates the progression of men at the expense of women even when this is objectively not justified. This is why somewhat depressing statistics like those supplied by Grant Thornton are still all too common.
And, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, that message is often amplified in the very places where it ought to be firmly stamped out—in the world’s leading business schools. Why do so many of our case studies continue to focus on leaders who exhibit traditional alpha-male qualities by rallying their troops like great military generals rather than harnessing the power of the group through participative skills more associated with women? Why did such a high profile player as Harvard Business School set itself a target of doubling the number of its case studies featuring women as principal protagonists by 2019 when this will still produce an outcome where women feature prominently in less than 20% of the total? Can’t we be a little more bold—a little more visionary—than that?
The education sector broadly, business schools in particular, and organizations generally need to do more and do better with diversity initiatives and programs. We all have to become aware of the insidious nature of unconscious bias so that we can actively counteract our “unthinking inclinations.” We need more dedicated research and advocacy centers such as our own Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations. All of us have to join forces to create education and training opportunities that strive for balance. It is not about whether men or women are somehow better than their counterparts. Rather, we have to make ‘conscious the unconscious’ so that the playing field becomes level with respect to access, opportunity for development, and progression. Business schools need to take the lead in showing the very bright and ambitious women who pass through their doors what their predecessors have achieved after graduation. Our students—female and male—need to understand through our curricula, materials, faculty, and program structures more broadly that leadership is not the natural preserve of one gender. If we fail in this then we risk undermining their all-important self-confidence and setting them on a path of pursuing “good enough” outcomes rather than breakthrough transformation.
So, what do we need to do? To make real progress we need to be unrelenting and really turn up the heat—on ourselves and on our societies.
By Dianne Bevelander, Professor of Management Education at RSM and the executive director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations
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