Why Aren’t We Making More Progress Towards Gender Equity?

 Why Aren’t We Making More Progress Towards Gender Equity?

by Elisabeth Kelan

Organizations have worked towards achieving gender equality for decades. They’ve invested resources into developing women’s careers. They’ve implemented bias awareness training. Those at the top, including many CEOs, have made public commitments to make their workplaces more fair and equitable. And, still, despite all of this, progress towards gender equality has been limited. In fact, many managers struggle to recognize gender inequalities in daily workplace interactions.

My research has shown that one of the reasons for this gap between awareness and action is what I call “gender fatigue.” This is the phenomenon of simultaneously acknowledging that gender inequality exists in general while denying that it exists in one’s immediate work environment. I’ve observed this in numerous studies I’ve conducted over the last two decades, including ethnographic studies and interviews with 150 individuals from professional services managers to public sector broadcasters, from MBA students to CEOs.

In my interviews, I identified four ways in which people made sense of this mismatch between their support for gender equality and the denial that it exists in their immediate work environment. The first rationalization is that gender inequality exists elsewhere, perhaps at another organization such as a competitor or in a different country. The second is based on a historical perspective: gender inequality existed in the past, say 20 years ago, but not today. The third is the claim that gender inequality can’t exist anymore because women are now given advantages in organizations. All of the efforts to fix unequal opportunities, the logic goes, have made it far easier for women to succeed. The final way that people reconciled these contradictory beliefs was to strategically ignore gender inequality. When presented with incidents of discrimination they would say that it had nothing to do with gender.

Here are some examples of how this plays out.

I spoke to several people who were part of an incident surrounding Carolyn*, an esteemed professional and expert in her field. In a meeting with a client, the client asked her to take meeting notes and bring coffee for everyone else, even though Carolyn holds a senior position. Requests like these have been shown to hold back women’s careers and are a form of sexism. But when reflecting on the incident, Carolyn herself described it as long in the past and explained that it was all resolved without issues. Carolyn’s line manager, eager to retain the client, removed Carolyn from the project swiftly. Her manager described the situation as a lack of “chemistry” with the client and felt it had nothing to do with gender.

Niklas*, after the birth of his daughter, got involved in promoting gender equality at his company, hoping it would help him to advance in the organization. Yet his daily actions were at odds with his purported support of women. He favored his male colleagues when it came to giving career advice or mentoring and he had the habit of ignoring women’s contributions in meetings. When I spoke with him and his coworkers about how this behavior could be seen as excluding women, everyone was quick to dismiss it, and everyone had an explanation. For instance, Niklas often gave career advice to people who showed up at the company’s sporting events, and he and his colleagues rationalized that women didn’t turn up for those. Similarly, they said that he was simply trying to keep the meeting on time and that’s why he had cut off his female colleague. Niklas continued to receive praise for being a gender equality champion within his organization.

Thomas* a senior leader at his company, was asked to speak to the organization’s women’s network. The meeting included an open conversation where women shared some of the issues they faced because of their gender, including being cut out of deals, navigating a culture of long hours, which was incompatible with family life, and receiving sexist comments from colleagues. Thomas listened to all of this and then simply said that this wasn’t his experience of the organization. He essentially invalidated the women’s experiences, and not surprisingly, many women stopped sharing their concerns.

Gender inequality is the result of a multitude of small-scale incidents like these that add up over time. Seemingly unimportant events are regularly regarded as small annoyances that don’t matter in the bigger picture. And gender fatigue makes these daily incidents essentially invisible.

So what steps can managers take to overcome gender fatigue and recognize the incidents in their organization that create and perpetuate inequalities? First, it’s important to recognize the temptation, in an attempt to affirm that their organization is equal, to ignore instances where daily gender inequalities exist. Managers need to acknowledge the paradox and the reality.

Second, managers need to reframe the recognition of inequality as a learning opportunity, not an exercise in assigning blame. Instead of feeling guilty that people (including themselves) are engaging in exclusionary practices, they should think creatively about what they can do differently. If they’re faced with a similar situation in the future, how would they act? Some managers keep a notebook — physical or digital — of such learning moments and record changes in their behavior over time. The act of writing down what they’re observing encourages self-reflection and the notebook itself is a good reminder to notice incidents that they wouldn’t otherwise.

Third, they need to help others — both men and women — to see gender inequality. My research shows that many women have developed sophisticated coping mechanisms to ignore the role gender plays at work and may believe that they don’t experience inequality (which in some cases, of course, may be true). 

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Originally posted on Harvard Business Review

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