• 03
  • MAR
  • 2019

Friday 8th of March is the date of this year's International Women's Day.  This is an event that has been celebrated since 1909 and is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.  This year's call to action is #BalanceforBetter.

Before exploring this year's call for action, a comment or two on the need for gender parity in organisations.  Since the first International Women's Day in 1909, there have been huge advances in gender equality.  It was only as recently as the early 1970s that women in the civil service were re-interviewed for their jobs if they became pregnant, to determine if they were still capable of performing them.  The 1970s also saw the introduction of the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts. Despite progress there is still much to be achieved.  As an eye-catching example, in 2018 there were more FTSE 100 CEOs named David (9) than female CEOs (7). 

When looking at the representation of women in senior positions in organisations it is clear there is a disparity, with the most recent Athena SWAN submission highlighting the same issue for Rothamsted Research.  Does this matter?  Of course it does.  First there is the moral argument for those employed in these organisations.  Secondly, there is the business case.  There is a plethora of studies identifying the business benefits of gender diversity in organisations.  I won't want take-up space here citing them but a cursory google search will prove fruitful.  But beyond these arguments there is the social impact of the fair representation of women in organisations.  Tests of implicit bias show that 76% of the population associate men with positions of power in organisations and women with junior positions.  Where do these associations come from?  They come from living in a society where gender disparity is the norm. 

And this matters to science as well.  Specifically, who will be involved in 'doing science' in the future.  You may well have heard of the 'draw the scientist' task, where children are asked to draw pictures of scientists.  In the first wave of these studies during the 1960-70s, 5,000 children took part, with only 0.6% of them depicting a female scientist.  A recent meta-analysis of the studies in this area[1]have shown that over the generations this effect has waned, with more children now visualising scientists as women.  Why has this happened?  Because there are more women engaged in science.

#BalanceforBetter is a call for action to encourage more gender balance in society and in organisations.  The risk is that is may be seen as a momentary hashtag and the pictures, like the one appearing alongside this article, as a short-lived meme.  Whilst the 8th March is the main event, it is in place to inspire us all to act for the long term.  So, what are the actions we can all take to progress gender balance?  From my work looking at diversity and inclusion in many organisations, I know that there is no silver bullet.  Change happens gradually through everybody taking collective responsibility and making small changes to the way the think and behave at work.  Here are my five top tips for you to make a difference:

1. Do not assume you are fair and objective

All of us make decisions at work that have impact on others' careers.  From the big ones like recruitment and merit promotion, through to who projects are assigned to, who gets career opportunities, who we help and who is made to feel welcome at work.  All of these decisions can be influenced by our biases both conscious and unconscious.  Taking longer to make your decisions can protect them from bias.

2. Check the decisions you make

Bias will impact some of the decisions you make.  A simple exercise is to list the last 10 people-related decisions you have made recently.  If these decisions have benefitted the same person or only men and you cannot justify this, plan to make amends with your future decisions.

3. Look at your informal network

Informal networks are hugely beneficial at work.  Those who are well connected are more likely to hear about new career opportunities, have access to information to help them do their jobs better, are more likely to be recognised for doing a good job and be sponsored by senior leaders. 

Ask yourself, who are the people I share information with, are comfortable with socially, who I consult and who I choose to work with.  If these people are predominantly men challenge yourself to open your network and the advantages it bestows, to others.

4. Get feedback on your micro behaviours

In a ten-minute interaction people exhibit between 40-100 micro-behaviours.  These come in two flavours.  Micro affirmations include nodding, eye contact, and paying attention to what people have to say.  Micro-incivilities include ignoring, interrupting, failing to recognise contributions and making assumptions about people.  Minorities in groups receive a disproportionate amount of micro-incivilities which lowers self-esteem and raises stress levels. 

You are unlikely to be aware you are exhibiting these behaviours but others around you will notice.  Ask a friend to observe you in meetings and give you feedback on your patterns of micro-behaviours.  Where you identify a deficit, you can rectify this by purposefully using more micro-affirmations.

5. Challenge sexism where you see it

This last tip is simple.  When you observe sexism, challenge it.

[1] Miller DI, Nolla KM, Eagly AH and Uttal DH (2018) The development of children’s gender-science stereotypes: a meta-analysis of 5 decades of U.S. draw-a-scientist studies. 13039.

Rob Barkworth is a psychologist who works at Pearn Kandola. He specialises in diversity and inclusion and has worked with leading scientific organisations including UKRI, Wellcome Trust, the European Space Agency and Genomics England.  He has a particular interest in how bias can impact academic research funding decision-making.