Thursday 12th October 2023
Showground, Wadebridge

Beyond the Gender Gap

In the week that was “Shoegate” it seemed fitting to be writing an article on diversity, inclusiveness and what on earth this really is.

In case you’re not aware, “Shoegate” occurred when a female turned up for work at a large professional services firm in London wearing flat shoes. Her employer, which was an agency, specified a dress code of heels between 2 and 4 inches high. The employee was sent home and subsequently complained, resulting in a change in dress code. So, another nail in the coffin for outdated dress code rules presumably historically set with stereotyping in mind. This change moves us further towards what seems to lie at the real heart of the so called “diversity problem”. That is allowing individuals to be themselves within the workplace and speak up for their views.

One senses stirrings in the diversity agenda over the past few years. Groups that previously focused on filling female quotas at the top are now focussing on encouraging individuality at the bottom. The “Gender Gap” is fast becoming as fashionable as last season’s heel length, although gender is still seen as critical as a proxy for identifying certain skills which are key within successful teams.

Diversity and Inclusiveness, or D&I, is becoming a key topic in workplace wellness and there are some key themes starting to dominate:

  1. There is a great difference between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk” and the latter must prevail. 
  2. The diversity agenda is becoming increasingly focussed on allowing employees to be themselves and hence contributing more to the success to the company they work for.

So how do we “walk the walk” and address the D&I problems our companies may face? Wearing whatever shoe type you want to may be a start (and that includes flip flops in Cornwall) but, seriously, we do all have a part to play. At employee level we need to have the confidence to speak up about who we are instead of fitting to a mould or acting a certain way to get a job, however uncomfortable that may feel. At employer level we need to look carefully about what we need in our teams and recruit “for the team” recognising the true individuality that someone brings to a group and not just recruiting more of what we already have.

The principles of D&I rest on the theory of Cognitive Diversity, which focusses on improving organisational effectiveness and not “improving Diversity for Diversity’s sake”. Research from 2010 has highlighted that having women in teams does provide a proxy for increased social sensitivity, which aids team performance, however gender balance is important, nevertheless is only one part of the wider picture.

Indeed, mum of 9 and investment banker Helena Morrissey is recently quoted saying that Diversity has “gone from being a women’s issue”. Morrissey’s new campaign, soon to be revealed, will focus on broader diversity and she cites the example of Thatcher to demonstrate why having a woman at the top doesn’t necessarily result in cultural change.

One very practical piece of advice also given by Morrissey is that “it is absolutely vital to be yourself” which can be a difficult balancing act to perform when needing to fit in to a certain company culture or exhibit certain behaviours in order to be promoted and secure a pay rise!

In order for employees to feel comfortable enough to do all this, employers need to “ask the right questions” and “never to assume anything”. So asking questions such as “did every one really have the opportunity to go on that golf trip?” may help ensure that the female who didn’t get asked isn’t actually a single figure handicap player and isn’t left out.

One of the problems with D&I is that one key to making diversity work is individuals from non-dominant groups penetrating a dominant group. Studies show that in order to integrate into a dominant group an individual should act like the group, therefore contradicting the aim of the exercise to be a diverse individual. The whole solution to the diversity issue therefore lies in fighting some natural human behavioural forces that have been in place for years, and highlight excellently how difficult “walking the walk” can be and why everyone needs to be aware of their and their organisation’s agenda for improved efficiency and the role diversity plays within it.

So, much to think about for both employers and employees and there is no doubt that we are all accountable and have a part to play in making change happen, one small step at a time, be it in a heeled shoe or not. The key message is clear though. If we’re going to get D&I right then we need to start being honest about who we are.

Blog supplied by Margaret De Valois of HYLI.