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To Address Gender Bias at Your Company, Start with Teams

Source | Harvard Business Review : By Todd Warner & Michelle King 

In the past decade organizations have invested significant resources to try to address the gender gap in senior management. But these efforts aren’t really working. Women account for just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and fewer than 15% of corporate executives at top companies worldwide. The only area where women pull ahead of men is in human resources, where they account for 71% of all HR managers.

The initiatives adopted by organizations to advance women tend to include mentoring programs, networking, coaching, increased maternity leave, child care benefits, and flexible work options. These efforts, and the tens of millions of dollars spent on them, are treating symptoms. Real diversity efforts require organizations to address the social patterns that stifle women’s careers, not just the symptoms that result from them.

Like many failed organizational changes, current approaches to diversity and inclusion run into the brick wall of the status quo. To change that status quo, organizations need to radically rethink their approach to diversity and focus on ways to mainstream diversity and inclusion in local team practices. Organizations can identify new ways of changing the social system surrounding how work is done by addressing three factors.

Focus on Local Practices

The ways in which people work is a local problem, as are the ways they discriminate. Despite standard operating procedures and global norms, people create local patterns everywhere they work, and these local patterns define work more strongly than centralized initiatives. The gender pay gap provides an example of localized bias. According to a 2016 study in Australia, the gender pay gap is influenced by a number of interrelated factors, including stereotypes and socialized norms about how women and men should behave in the workforce. These factors often crop up in the social system of work (e.g., the kind of work we do with our direct colleagues). Local teams define socialized norms and create their own stereotypes of who the A players are; in aggregate, these local practices significantly undermine diversity efforts. These local teams maintain and enforce ways of working that are beyond the purview of corporate policy and initiatives but are fundamental to enabling how work is really done.

Local teams would never overtly describe themselves as biased against diversity, but when you look at how they approach work and what they do socially and day-to-day, they are. Edith Cooper, the global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, shared her experience: “People frequently assumed I was the most junior person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs.” Because of deeply localized assumptions, teams inadvertently perpetuate the status quo and marginalize women in daily interactions. On their own, these interactions are imperceptible; in aggregate, they are exhausting to anyone of “difference” in an organization.

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