If we had a quid for every time we heard the words ‘talent pool’ or ‘pipeline’ come up in conversations about why there is a lack of women at leadership level (or, for that matter, in tech at ANY level of the organisation), we would be filthy rich by now.
Despite numerous articles, personal accounts and pieces of research putting the pipeline barrier into perspective or debunking it entirely, this continues to be a familiar refrain. In this article, we want to shine a spotlight on something which we believe has a far greater impact on companies ability to attract, retain and get the best out of female identifying talent - gender based microaggressions and the patriarchal myths that underpin them.
We’ve written about the impact of microaggressions before (take a look here if you’re interested in learning about microaggressive stress and here to check out our article about microaggressions and neurodiversity) - but we wanted to shine a light on the impact of gender based microaggressions too - given that they are so pervasive and damaging, both to the individuals they directly impact as well as your company’s success.
The challenge is that our businesses are a reflection of the society we live in. Meaning that if the patriarchy exists at a societal level - and you’d better believe that these structural inequalities are still out there at every level of society and politics* - it exists within our organisations.
*A snapshot: despite the fact that women make up over 50% of the population, just 34% of MP’s identify as female (and that’s a ‘record high’) the gender pay gap is still a gaping 15.5% and across Europe, 90.8% of VC capital still went to all-male founder teams in 2020.
It means that, if you’re a founder or leader, you have a moral imperative to dismantle the patriarchy in your slice of society - and this includes educating your team on why gender based microaggressions are simply unacceptable. These jokes, so-called ‘banter’, or subtle ‘innocent’ comments operate on two levels - they impact the individuals at which they’re directed - and they send a wider message to your team that it’s ok to casually denigrate female identifying individuals with a seat at the table - or tell them that they have no chance of progressing getting there in the first place. With time and tolerance, microaggressions will kill any sense of inclusion or psychological safety that the female-identifying members of your team feel.
Inaction also means feeding into a systemic problem - so we’re here to shed light on these microaggressions and provide some practical tools on how combat them.
If you feel ever so slightly exhausted reading that list - you’re not alone. We also felt weary whilst writing it - both because of how familiar the above scenarios felt to us as female leaders - and because we could have gone on to add many more examples. However, we believe it’s important to share these examples for a few reasons. Firstly, we hope that it provides an opportunity to reflect on whether any of the above resonate - are these things you’ve heard over the course of your career, or observed within your own organisation? Secondly, if you’re reading this as someone who doesn’t identify as female, we wanted to give a sense of the impact of microaggressions - read one of the above examples and it’s easy to dismiss, read the whole list and you might feel overwhelmed, dispirited and angry.
It’s important to be aware of the fact that microaggressions can be intersectional. Intersectionality is about the connectedness and overlap of different social identities - e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation - all of these different parts of an individual's identity are indivisible and will impact their experience of the world. The above gender-based microaggressions will be experienced differently for individuals with more than one marginalised identity - e.g. a Black queer women, or a disabled Asian women.
Now that we’ve brought awareness to what gender based microaggressions can look like, we want to share some practical tips for dealing with them, both head on - if you as a leader observe them directly - and structurally - by changing the way you think about parental leave and leadership.
It can be tempting to shrug off microaggressions or ignore them to communicate your lack of approval - and depending on your relationship with the individual, how safe you feel tackling the issue and how willing you are to invest time and energy in responding, this may well be appropriate. This is particularly the case if you are on the receiving end of a microaggression - part of their pernicious effect is to disarm and trigger an emotional response that can leave you frozen.
However, if you are a founder or leader, there is a responsibility to respond when you observe a microaggression taking place. Doing so shows that you care about building a truly inclusive culture and value the mental health of team members who are directly impacted by microaggressions.
When a microaggression has taken place, there are a number of ways to respond - and the context often determines what is appropriate. However, it is also true that speed is of the essence when responding, given that the nature of microaggressions is that they are often passing comments which are easily glossed over if not addressed - meaning that it helps to have a few different responses in your pocket.
Luckily, Diane Goodman, a leading social justice advocate and professor, has devised a list of statements to help. You can view the full list here, but here are a few of our favourites:
Normally, we’d recommend addressing concerns about someone’s behaviour in a one on one setting, even if others had observed it. However, due to the fact that microaggressions can not just impact the people they are aimed at, but set a wider cultural tone, these ‘in the moment’ responses are crucial. However, one thing that we would recommend doing one on one is checking in on the person or people who may have been impacted by the microaggression - first and foremost to ask if they’re ok, and then also to reassure them that the behaviour has been heard and seen and that it will not be tolerated.
We wanted to highlight parental leave as an area of focus because, as we see from the above list - there are a lot of gender based microaggressions centred around a motherhood - but also, it’s an area where there is PLENTY of room for structural change. By adopting a different approach to parental leave, you can signal to your team that tired old stereotypes have no place in your organisation.
UK law is completely out of step with societal change. Although it is now much more common for parents, regardless of gender, to share more equally the responsibilities of childcare, legally there is still a huge imbalance when it comes to the amount of leave mothers and fathers can take and the pay they’re eligible for. This reinforces inequity and means that families are not given enough opportunity to choose what's right for them. Equalising pay and leave requirements gives your team the freedom to choose. (P.S. we’ve created a template for gender neutral parental leave, which you can find here.)
A lot can change in 9 months - particularly if your business is going through a growth phase or a period of rapid change. It’s important that you agree on some touchpoints with anyone going on parental leave, so that they still feel included in the journey the business is going on and returning to work (if that is what they choose to do) feels less overwhelming. It’s important that all managers are aware of this responsibility to stay connected - and specifically, that they’re clear on things like:
Even if a person who’s been on parental leave feels in the loop about key developments, returning to work can still be a daunting task, because it involves recalibrating routines, juggling new responsibilities and often doing so whilst sleep deprived. It’s important to think of a return to work like an onboarding process - what do you need to do to set the person finishing their parental leave up for success in their role? What context is important for them to know? How can you meet them where they are at and offer flexibility given their unique circumstances?
Historically, women have been underrepresented in leadership positions. This has coloured our idea of what it means to be a great leader, and created strong associations between characteristics that are stereotypically masculine-coded and leadership traits. This has also led to some vitally important leadership qualities - such as empathy, building trust, being consultative - being undervalued and underrepresented in job ads for senior roles. .
At Unleashed, we don’t believe that there is one way to be a great leader. There are many different leadership styles and leadership behaviours. When hiring, it’s important to reflect on the skills that are actually needed and reflect this in the language used in your job ad, given that we know that the language used in job specs has a direct correlation to the diversity of the applicant pool. !
Not only are we creating a massive barrier to entry for women by immediately associating good leadership with only masculine behavioural traits, we’re also setting those that do get a job, up to fail. Female leaders are consistently evaluated more negatively than their male equivalents, even when their performance is higher and when they do embody those traits, they’re accused of being ‘too aggressive’, ‘bossy’ or told to “smile more”.
And the ironic part?! Research (too much to all link in this article, but here’s an interesting paper) has suggested that solely traditionally masculine leadership traits aren’t necessarily effective at boosting high performance or engagement within teams. Which begs the question - why do we insist women level up with (and/or test them against) these masculine leadership traits? Making women act more like men might impact the representation of female identifying individuals at the leadership table, but it’s going to be significantly more detrimental to the quality of leadership happening and likely the engagement of the team.
In order to truly boost engagement, happiness and high performance within our teams (Oh, AND be a part of creating systemic change), we have to redefine the leadership traits that we’re testing, instilling, training and holding our managers and leaders accountable to.
Research by Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that Psychological Safety was by far and above the number 1 indicator of high performing teams. Her definition? “...a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, opinions, concerns or mistakes..” or “a shared belief held by members of a team that they are safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In fact, her research showed that organizations with higher levels of psychological safety performed better on almost any metric or KPI in any field, in comparison to organizations that had a low psychological safety score. This was later supported by Google’s Project Aristotle which, whilst working to answer the much asked questions “What makes an effective team at Google?”, also found that Psychological Safety was the No.1 differentiator.
Leaders who prioritise building this culture by fostering open conversations fueled by empathy, ensuring that all voices have the opportunity to contribute and are subsequently heard, by centring all our People practises around Inclusion so that everyone feels supported and celebrated for their varying backgrounds, ideas or opinions, are directly investing in the happiness, productivity and engagement of their team. Leaders embodying traits like empathy. Vulnerability. Prioritising support and compassion over assertiveness and ‘strength’. These are the leadership traits (among others) that we need to be using our leadership job specs and testing candidates on, not to mention training our managers to embody.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can begin to build the foundations of psychological safety, check out this article on why this is so important, and what you can do to foster it, starting today.
The reality is that without deliberate change and accountability from leaders and organisations, the patriarchy will continue. The problem is not making mistakes - it’s inaction and that includes not changing the standards to which we hold our leaders and businesses accountable to.
Hopefully throughout this article we’re made a fairly good argument for why it’s vital from a societal perspective to drive change within your business, but if you need any more convincing, just take a look at the impact of that inaction internally.
So over to you. Hold yourself and your fellow leaders accountable and communicate when you’ve done so. Invest time into educating your team, looking at your people practises all with the lens of Inclusion. Be deliberate about your actions to stamp out these gender based microaggressions and be a part of societal change for the better!
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