Gender at Work
Dr. Lily Jampol and I met over a coffee in July to talk about her expertise in gender and diversity in the workplace. We left that conversation unfinished, but the issues that were raised continued to resonate. We carried on the exchange over email and we've published that in full below.
Lily is a People Scientist at Humu. She graduated with a PhD in Social Psychology from Cornell University.
James: Hi Lily, lovely to see you this week and thanks for offering to continue our chat over email. I’m hoping people may take some value from an open conversation.
Let’s pick up where we left off. Discrimination on the grounds of gender is illegal in the UK and socially unacceptable in (most) workplaces. While that represents progress, I wonder whether it makes us hesitant to accept the deeper, less visible problems that lurk uncomfortably close to home. How do you confront the well-evidenced reality of unintended stereotyping and discrimination when you have a statement in your HR policy that claims to treat all employees equally? How do you tell a leader enjoying the squeaky-clean profile of an ‘equality champion’ that she/he might be holding innate prejudice against half their team?
Lily: Great question, James — I think one of the most interesting phenomena is that extremely decent, pro-equality, progressive people don't see how they are pushing back sometimes. I was discussing the recent BBC decision to reveal salaries for all staff with someone who works there, and he said he wasn't sure how he felt about it. I asked him why and he said something along the lines of ‘well, many of our salaries will end up being reduced because they will be forced to redistribute’. He also mentioned that he felt uncomfortable telling a female colleague his salary because he knew it was higher. I noted that this was sort of the point of the transparency — that there is a huge gap that is exacerbated for minority groups. So that really, whatever might be "taken" from him might go to someone who deserves it equally. When I put it this way he agreed that he would/should be willing to take a pay cut and could see the merit of transparency (which makes him a damn hero since most people with whom I've had this conversation rarely budge). But it's still going to hurt.
James: I think part of that challenge is that those of us in a position of advantage struggle to accept there’s a problem. A recent survey from Ipsos showed that most men still believe there’s gender equality at work — pretty shocking given the empirical research to suggest otherwise. But we all want to believe that the things we achieve are the sole products of our talent and hard work. And if I accept the evidence of pervasive gender bias, I also need to accept that I’ve been given a leg up where others haven’t and that rattles those foundations a little. Why do we find that so difficult?
Lily: The problem is that it's hard to look beyond our own immediate needs, especially if we feel entitled to them. And equality often seems like a zero-sum game to people. If others are to get more then I am to get less. This may be true in the short term (especially if you are already getting more), and some will have to get used to a little bit of sacrifice for the bigger picture. But when you think about your colleagues, someone who is doing a similar job as you but making 10k or 100k less, it doesn't feel fair because it isn't, and we know that. And in the long run, it will be much harder to create these imbalances if the infrastructure is put in place that keeps them in check.
Transparency is one type of infrastructure that will cost a bit up front, as it always does, but makes things better in the long run. And not just for those who originally had less. Equality and a culture of fairness are tied to organizational profit so it's likely everyone will be better off in the long run. But it's hard to let go of entitlement, especially if that entitlement has never been questioned or has even been encouraged. When the status quo is shaken, it’s seen as a loss for the group that's had status or power. If your identity is normally associated with the kinds of people who end up on top, and those people are usually men, then upending that balance is perceived as a threat to social privilege. And many of us in power positions don't even think we have social privilege until it's threatened - when we do, it's seen as a right.
James: It’s true that a shallow support of the equality agenda is easy for me (and for big businesses). It confirms my values and identity, and offers a great way to get social credit with little risk. The problem is that even a little bit of digging starts to feel very uncomfortable very quickly. As you say, there’s a confrontation with my privilege and I start to grasp at reasons why that could be unfair and unwarranted. I’m suddenly pushing back without realising it, often with a compelling, flawed and self-deceptive logic that returns me to safety. Sometimes I catch that and reset, but no doubt it also influences the way I behave and the decisions I make about others.
Lily: That’s right, and it’s true for most of us. The people we think have it all, whether it is status, money, or power, always feel like someone else has more than them. That is, their status is fragile. They feel like they deserve to have made it this far but worry that they haven't quite made it far enough and they likely feel that isn't fair. So, while we are thinking that their 200k salary is amazing, they are thinking that Joe down the hall makes 300k, and why him? Similarly, privilege is very hard to see when you have it, but easy to see when you don't. Many of us don't question or even think about the fact that we get to have lunch every day, when millions around the world don't know where their next meal comes from. Instead, we are busy thinking about how cool it would be to be able to have lunch at 5-star restaurants every day, like Joe does.
Often men don't think about what a privilege it is to walk down the street every night without a constant physical fear, or that they don't have to wear headphones on the street to make it look like they are unavailable. White people don't often think about what a privilege it is to not get systematically stopped and questioned by the police. Almost every time I do a diversity workshop I get the same complaint from people: But what about me? I'm a victim too. You don't know how hard it was for me to grow up in X, be a short man in Y profession, to not have graduated from Oxbridge, be bullied in school etc. And it's not ridiculous - everyone has their own traumas and their own experiences of being lesser-than. Your feelings about it aren't less important than others. But when there is a systematic injustice - when you can predict prejudiced patterns based on social groups like race or gender we need to put our own privilege in context. That is, it's not about minimizing your experiences, it's about making you aware of the other experiences you have had that have also made it easier for you. That’s your privilege.
James: I couldn’t help seeing Joe in context — he’s our CXO, a decision-maker, an influencer of the way we act and the ways we do things in big business. He’s the guy that gives the green light on reward schemes and transparent pay; he decides whether to hire his next protégé from the ranks of his Mayfair Club or broaden his net (and mind). I’m assuming Joe and many of his fellow leaders have got to where they are — in part — because of ambition and dissatisfaction with their status. I suspect they’re proud of the talent and grit that has powered them up the ranks ‘against the odds’, and they might even feel they’re still fighting that battle every day. Let me go back to one of my first questions: how do you tell a leader in that context, that their achievements may also be routed in privilege? How do you broach that they might be holding innate prejudice against half their team?
Lily: Self-perception is a huge obstacle. In my opinion, there’s no greater hurdle to inclusion than perceived threat against one's self-concept, which is generally high. We like to think we are good people. And for the most part we are. No one (well, mostly), walks around the office telling women and other minorities they are subhuman (which, yes, is illegal so don't try it). Very few people even see themselves as capable of thinking that way, which is why it's easy to shame others, while feeling great about ourselves. Even (or perhaps especially) social justice warriors and those who care deeply about equality would likely be threatened if they were called out on a racist or sexist behaviour. That's why it doesn't often pay to do so (though there is a debate about the effectiveness of public shaming as punitive moral good). One of the benefits of a test like the Implicit Association Test (the IAT; you can take one at implicit.harvard.edu), which measures how quickly we respond to incongruent categorizations (e.g., woman/banker or Muslim/good), despite its debated ability to predict actual racist and sexist behaviour, is that it has helped people realize that they may not know everything about themselves. Despite good intentions, we all harbor deeply ingrained beliefs from years of unavoidable social, cultural, and individual osmosis of biased information.
James: That sounds like the start of some valuable advice for those who want to push things forward. I’ve just gone back to that Ipsos survey and 67% of men in the UK and 72% in the US believe men and women have equal opportunities in their country (as do 51% and 53% of the women surveyed). Assuming those beliefs are holding back the inclusion agenda in corporate institutions — especially among leadership teams — how would you go about helping employees accept a difficult reality and encourage them to contribute to change? Even when it might hurt a little in the short term?
Lily: We want to find ways to make people less resistant to information that is threatening. This might be through building them up first, challenging them to take on difficult information, creating a culture where openness to ideas is celebrated, and asking for their input and experiences rather than just telling them how it all works. Above all, it’s empowering them to take an expansive and long-term view that this is good for everyone.
It's good to question yourself regularly and accept criticism from others. However, not everyone seeks such constructive criticism. It doesn't usually help to tell people they are bad because it provokes a reactionary, defensive response. And we need to reframe how we teach things like subconscious biases to those who may be the most threatened by it. No one ever says, "oh cool, now I know I'm a racist" after we show them a few slides. Instead, cognitive dissonance (discomfort that needs to be resolved) will kick in and they will tell themselves anything to defend themselves against this threatening information. I think a process of affirming our inherent goodness needs to be done before any threatening information is shared, and when it is, in a way that is less threatening to people and is accompanied by concrete ways in which they can keep growing. We also, somewhat unfortunately, need to spell out how equality and inclusion is not a loss but again for everyone.
We've not included references in the above for readability, but we would both recommend Iris Bohnet's brilliant Gender Equality at Work for those wishing to explore how behavioural science can support a fairer workplace.
If you would like to explore how we can support your commitment to diversity and inclusion, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lily is available as our advisory consultant on request.
Finally, if you took some value from our conversation please share it far and wide, and feel free to contribute below. We believe open discussion is important.