For decades boards and top teams have tried to address the whole issue of diversity and making their organisations inclusive. It’s time for honest conversations and real understanding of what is going on and how to address what is a societal issue across the world.

Our study of 2,000 people found that gender stereotyping and discrimination is limiting both men and women in their career choices and found around 40% of the UK population are steeped in gender stereotyping limiting the lives of many. In neuroscience, using MRI scanners, it has been
found that the experience of feeling excluded activates the same part of the brain (the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex) as it would for the experience of pain. Therefore, over time, the experience of feeling excluded is quite literally painful.

There are strong economic, business, health and social needs for change. Numerous studies globally have confirmed that reducing gender inequality enhances both productivity and economic growth. According to recent research through the World Economic Forum, closing the male-female employment gap would boost US GDP by 9%, the Eurozone by as much as 13% and Japan GDP by 16%. While there is much going on in organisations to make the change, they are perceived as helpful up to a point but not enough. The big question often asked is ‘what is holding diversity and inclusion back?’ Research after research shows this includes:

  • Lack of role models
  • Feeling excluded
  • No sponsor in upper management
  • Individuals themselves as bias disrupts the process of taking on ‘leader’ identity.
  • Most of all – unconscious bias in society at large.

All of which result in work practices and cultural norms reflecting the unconscious bias in society. The reality is that organisational practices mirror societal norms which places leadership as still a white male concept and women who take charge as ‘bossy’. Neither are men or women to blame, though women too often blame themselves. We are all actively using unconscious bias in our lives every day and society at large. In early mankind, it enabled us to quickly identify friend or foe based on ‘are you like us.’ Unconscious bias happens in our brains making fast judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising it. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. As we grow up, we form into social groups we feel part of and they influence how we frame our experience of the world; how we see it; and, how we judge others and ourselves. They also form our values, beliefs, attitudes and feelings about others and ourselves.

Most organisations were once set up and run by men and so the dominant culture is male. When women work in male cultures, they sometimes have a choice: either assimilate and try to fit in but in doing so they lose touch with their own identity trying to be accepted that results in draining energy’; or internalise messages from the dominant culture such as ‘women can’t park cars’ or ‘women can’t do maths’ limiting their capabilities. Neurobiology shows that there is in fact no difference between male and female brains when it comes to mathematical concepts, computational skills or leadership. In other words, there is no scientific reason for what we often see reflected in society. When minority cultures take on the messages of the dominant culture and turn them on themselves and each other it is called ‘internalised oppression’. This is what happens when women judge and criticise other women. In some cases, a woman who is driven to succeed may align herself with men and distance herself from other women. Some men will also feel they have to assimilate a culture and will feel drained as a result of not being themselves. We need to accept that we all have unconscious bias and that it is very deep rooted. It forms a three- part paradox that we deal with every day that says:

  • We are all alike as we are all human beings;
  • We are like no other human being as we are each individual;
  • We are like some people more than others and we are comfortable with our social identity

All three function together and while being aware of this the reality is, it is part of being human. It is a myth to say ‘I treat people as individuals’ as in each interaction our unconscious bias kicks in and our body language and how we even look at another person will be recognised usually by the other person that we are even moderately suspicious to begin with. This can be a person of colour judging a white woman or colleagues judging someone with autism. Political correctness pushed all this under the table when in fact we need to bring these things to the surface to address them. If we don’t, every now and then our true beliefs or attitudes will drive bias behaviours to leak out even when we try to mask them. Therefore, we should acknowledge unconscious bias but keep striding forward.

Firstly, we should educate children and adults about biases in the brain, so they are aware of them. Where it goes wrong is for example a minority group being treated differently over absenteeism because managers don’t want to be seen as biased. This just results in negative learned behaviour such as taking more time off and taking advantage of the situation. We need to have open, honest dialogue without fear or being judged. Then everyone can be authentic rather than assimilate; respect each other and our differences for they can be an organisation’s strengths.

Secondly, we need to create safe ‘identity development spaces’ for women and minorities. For this example, the focus here is on women as they are not a minority but half the human population. In this space issues such as implicit leadership theories need to be addressed. This is when someone says ‘I’m not really a leader’ based on what they believe a leader is. If they’re not just being modest – and most aren’t – through dialogue they explore what they think they know about leaders and how it is inconsistent with what they know about themselves. They’ve usually compared themselves to their mental models of leaders and have concluded that they’re not in that category. These mental categories integrating what we “know” about leaders and leadership are called implicit leadership theories; they are culturally shared assumptions about how leaders develop, look and behave. In our research with young people implicit leadership theories were a huge barrier to leadership.
Implicit leadership theories, are organized and coherent assumptions about leaders and leadership, have a multi-faceted impact on our leader identity, leadership behaviour, leader self-efficacy, ability to benefit from leader development, and interactions with others in leadership roles. Surfacing and examining these assumptions in terms of how constructive they are, allows us to expand our “leader” category to include non-stereotypical ways of exercising leadership, develop realistic leader identities, strengthen our leader self-efficacy, take initiative in leadership situations, and interact more constructively with those in leadership roles in our lives. In addition, gender stereotyping affects leadership self –efficacy – the belief that one has the personal capabilities and resources to meet the demands of a specific task – in this case leadership. It has been shown through different studies recently that leader self-efficacy beliefs contribute to leadership performance. In addition, there is a positive relationship between leader self-efficacy and the willingness to take on a leadership role. An individual with low leader self-efficacy will avoid such experiences.

In addition, even with the same number of leadership experiences we know a female will have lower leader self-efficacy than her male counterpart and this seems to be down to the subjective interpretation of their experiences. Men tend to interpret their successful performances in a more efficacy- enhancing manner, for example they interpret success as evidence of their ability, while women tend to attribute their successful performances in a way that constrains efficacy growth. For examples, some are more likely to put achievement down to the help of others, their team or luck rather than their own capabilities – what is sometimes called the Imposter Syndrome. Research on gender and self -efficacy found that negative stereotypes (such as being called bossy) undermined the individual’s assessment of their abilities and resulted in decreased performance that can be self-threatening. If persistent stereotype threat occurs individuals may disengage from that domain, and this may be why we hear so many girls and women say they are not a leader and display ‘disidentification’ with the role. Each of these issues must be addressed in the development of leader identity.

This is not to say that organisations are not active in trying to resolve the issue. There are three strategies that are being undertaken in organisations today to address gender imbalance. The first is ‘assimilation’ whereby women are encouraged to adopt more masculine attributes through assertive communication and decision making. They may be coached to speak up more in meetings and take tough assignments; in other words, to assimilate men at work. The second approach is ‘accommodation’ whereby the organisation accommodates the unique needs of women such as extended maternity leave, flexible work arrangements and mentoring programmes to compensate for women’s exclusion from informal networks. The third approach instead emphasises the differences that women bring to the work- place and ‘celebrates’ those differences. This can take the form of ‘sensitivity’ training for male managers to appreciate feminine styles such as listening and collaboration. At the same time, the organisation often puts women into roles where they market products to women or head up HR initiatives.

All these have helped some women as far as they can but don’t go far enough. This is because they focus on the symptoms of inequality rather than the sources of inequality. Things won’t improve unless we start with the belief that gender inequity is rooted in our cultural patterns and therefore in our organisational systems that need to be reinvented by altering the raw materials of organisational practices in which biases are expressed.

The final solution is to facilitate a process whereby people talk about the work culture and launch small initiatives to try and eradicate the practices that produce inequity and replace them with practices that make for an inclusive organisation that is better for everyone. This means that it routs discrimination by fixing the organisation, not the women who work for it. Fundamental is to have a board member involved who can report back as those on the board shape the culture of the organisation. The problem isn’t a glass ceiling; it’s the whole structure in which we work. Now leaders have to be architects to reconstruct organisations, brick by brick, rebuilding with practices that are stronger and more equitable for all people. The process is achieved through what Karl Weick called ‘small-wins’. It is through small wins that individuals and teams are highly successful. It keeps people motivated, focused and suits how the brain works to eradicate inequality and replace with equity practices better for everyone.