Can you afford to ignore gender bias?

9th September 2021

You may be missing out on engaging at least 50% of your team

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.

Malala Yousafzai

Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2013

A young Malala Yousafzai spoke powerfully about her experiences and hopes for her gender in her famous speech to the UN in 2013. Of course her statement is correct and the maths is undeniable.

In a very different context, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund simply explained: “When women do better, economies do better.”

Few leaders would disagree that a meritocracy is the best route to success. Beyond that, the case for gender equality builds itself. Organisations simply can’t afford to overlook issues or biases that jeopardise women’s engagement in their roles.

Who are your customer-facing team members?

Across the UK workforce and spanning different sectors, the proportion of women reduces at each step up the corporate ladder.

For example, women account for two thirds of all customer service positions in the UK. Yet as you know, there is a disparity between this figure and the number of females represented in management roles.

Within this context, can we be truly confident that we’re doing enough to motivate and engage all female team members? On an overall level, something isn’t working and it will take a number of solutions to truly unleash the potential of your entire workforce.

The gender leadership gap in customer services

Source: UK – Office for National Statistics (Employment by gender, 2018)

  • 62%

    Women in frontline call center roles

  • 48%

    Women in supervisory and managerial roles

But we don’t discriminate based on gender!

It’s easy to underestimate the relevance of this topic, especially in seemingly well run organisations with positive intentions. Remember, there are many forms of discrimination, prejudice and bias. One of the toughest to identify and therefore combat is unconscious bias.

Unconscious gender bias is defined as unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, stemming from traditions, norms, values, culture and/or experience.

Automatic associations feed into decision-making, enabling a quick assessment of an individual according to gender and gender stereotypes.

Believe it or not, these unconscious biases and attitudes will be playing a role in your team, the relationships and recognition systems.

Gender stereotypes are notoriously sticky, in part because we’re often unaware that we hold them.

The question is, what can we do to create a positive and fairer culture that benefits everyone? Dr Likki, quoted above argues that given the enormous challenge of shifting the stereotypes inside our heads, it is better to start by re-structuring a business’s processes and systems.

The importance of being impartial

Fairness is a value held in high regard for many people in judging the organisations and employers they work for. A fascinating study conducted in Sweden also discovered a clear link between fairness in the workplace and health outcomes.

Our study provides a thorough examination of how fairness at the workplace and health of employees is related over time. The findings can help raise awareness among employers and authorities that fairness at work but also health is important to consider to increase satisfaction, well-being and productivity.

These tangible benefits including satisfaction and productivity show the potential for direct and indirect improvements.

Designing a fairer workplace

With the benefits in mind, we have assembled a few practical solutions that your business can implement as a starting point. These will not only demonstrate a commitment to equality, but could also start to uncover some new shining stars in your team fairly quickly.

1. Design blind recruitment practices

This can be as simple as removing identifying information from job applications before they reach the eyes of the hiring manager. Following this initial stage with well designed, structured and most importantly consistent recruitment stages puts all of your applicants on a level playing field. Of course there are equality gains here beyond gender.

2. Structure your approach to performance management

Take any bias, mystery or mistrust out of when and why promotions and pay rises get handed out. Managing performance fairly is easiest with consistent approaches and systems in place.

Ensure you provide transparent and clear objectives alongside clear review processes. Perhaps encourage 360 degree feedback, so that a wider set of views are considered, not just those of a direct manager. Link promotions or advancements to strong evidence of success in line with business objectives.

3. Develop family friendly policies and processes

Recognise that home life and work life are not separate entities. Flexibility is becoming a hot topic which has been accelerated by the pandemic. We’ve seen shifts in expectations around working from home as well as an uptake in tools and technology to enable this on a much larger scale.

Women are more likely than men to request part-time work so consider how this can work for your people and your organisation. Put a flexible working policy in place so that these discussions are treated fairly and consistently. Employers build reputations around these types of policies (good and bad), so there is an opportunity here to take a stance. For inspiration, there are some excellent examples here.

4. Adopt impartial systems for recognition

Of course, structured performance management is not the only system of reward. Day to day recognition of a job well done is a powerful way of motivating and engaging teams. The potentially informal nature of this feedback gives rise to biases whereby managers have different or closer relationships with different team members. Consider launching a recognition system where anybody can nominate employees who provide excellent service, from customers through to other colleagues. The next step is to ensure that these nominations are independently reviewed and judged.

Successfully launching a recognition programme

Where a recognition programme can appeal across all employees it has huge potential to create team unity, alignment of goals and shared celebrations of success – some of the key determinants of a positive company culture.

Experience has taught us that the success of these programmes is reliant on strong levels of internal awareness, trust and engagement. Some of our advice upon launching a programme is to ensure that your teams:

  1. Understand how the programme works
  2. Have confidence in the judging process and criteria
  3. Feel that it is relevant to their role

The WOW! Awards is the only recognition programme that independently reviews and judges all nominations. From day one, we believed that this was the right thing to do. We’ve seen that this approach gives the awards more credibility with employees and broadens its appeal right across client organisations.

You can read more about creating an inclusive recognition programme in our blog post ‘Your employee recognition scheme – is it inclusive?’.