There was a lot happening in the Tees Valley last week with an extended International Women’s Day (IWD) #breakthebias.  

Although we’ve come a long way towards gender equality since the first IWD 111 years ago. There’s still a lot to be done. And yes, that’s business ethics heartland, but it also demonstrates a lack of business sense!   Men and women think differently and therefore do business differently so to exclude half of the population (consciously or unconsciously)  from making their contribution to the workplace has to be counter-productive.

NIBE’s event partners, Changing Relations,  combined evidence-base with creativity to focus on the theme of breaking the bias. They dug back through some interesting research findings gathered during the pandemic with Dr Stephen Burrell and presented in our Gender Equality in the North East Workplace report.

Of the 72 professionals who participated, 84% felt that their workplace culture encourages gender equality & inclusion. That sounds incredibly positive. But, and there was a big but, there were some statistics on specific issues under the umbrella of gender equality that prompt us to ask if everything really is as positive as that headline figure suggests.  Their Who Wears the Trousers zine & animation revealed that 57% of respondents felt women were affected worse by the pandemic compared to 3% who thought men were affected worse and zooming out of that to a nationwide study conducted by the University of Sussex67% of women with work commitments described themselves as the default parent during lockdown 70% reported being completely / mostly responsible for home schooling.  Going back to that initial 84% of people telling us their workplace encourages gender equality, this calls us to ask how this belief marries with 57% of the same group of people telling us women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.  Is it because we’re seeing parenting as a private family issues and not the business of the workplace? 

It may be fair to say that the pandemic was very much an extreme, extraordinary period of time, but it could also be useful for us to see it as a magnifying glass to draw attention to some of the tendencies around us within our culture.  And if you look at some of the additional figures from Changing Relations report:  35% felt women’s productivity was worse affected by the pandemic (vis-à-vis 5% for men) 28% felt women’s career progression was worse affected (vis-à-vis 0% for men).  Those figures  suggest there is a double bind for women in the workplace – how can they earn more if their productivity and progression is more affected?

There’s also a discussion to be had around some of the cultures that lie just beneath the surface of society.  Who do we expect to be doing the caring? Who do we see as nurturers?  How is this reflected in our organisational culture, in the policies but also in the banter and the underlying expectations of men and women?

Let’s have a look at a few more contributions here that point to the way in which we might need to interrogate our organisational cultures to see if there any lingering old-fashioned societal gender norms still being reinforced, perhaps without us realising!

In 2018-19, 17% of people said they disapproved of mothers with children under 3 working full-time, while 4% expressed this view when asked about fathers.

British Social Attitudes report, National Centre for Social Research

“There is an underlying assumption care is women’s work even when they are the primary earner. To tackle that we need to examine what happens when children are born.”

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director, the Women’s Budget Group

“Fathers are vital to progressing gender equality for mothers.”

Ann Francke, Chief Executive, Chartered Management Institute

Culture change isn’t easy! But if we can start to notice the messages we are creating, what we are implicitly encouraging or reinforcing, what it might be possible for us to challenge….maybe the pandemic can be a prompt for us to seize the moment and break down some of our biases!

In arguing for female inclusion in the government’s pandemic recovery slogan Build Back Better, MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, argues that: “It is not good enough to look at policies in the round when we know women need even more help to just get back to where they were.”

Let’s make sure that workplace practice around gender equality and inclusion takes into account the gender norms lingering within our culture. There is more we need to celebrate and challenge if we are to break the biases surrounding women and caring responsibilities.

This blog is taken from a blog by Lisa Davis, managing director of Changing Relations CiC. To read the full blog please visit their website.