A broader approach to bias

In the first of a two-part interview, Diana Parkes from Women’s Sat Nav to Success speaks about her new pilot programme that takes a broader approach to addressing the gender pay gap.



Diana Parkes is founder of Women’s Sat Nav to Success. It conducts research and works with employers to address the issues behind the gender pay gap. She has recently put together a new programme, Pause for Success, which builds on her research and addresses the underlying contribution-to-value gap that she has identified in a way that isn’t wholly focused on gender. Initial pilots have brought very positive feedback from line managers who might be put off by tickbox unconscious bias training programmes. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to Diana about her work.

Workingmums.co.uk: How did you come up with the idea for the Pause for Success pilots?

Diana Parkes: They are a conclusion that our research programmes and experiences with employers and professional institutions over the last 12 years have led to, given our absolute focus on enabling women to have the roles, recognition, support and rewards they merit.

WMs: What were the drivers?

Diana Parkes: We’ve been delivering workshops, programmes, coaching and mentoring for women in the UK for the last nine years and it’s clear that while we can provide the insights and strategies to fast track progress, women can only get so far if they encounter levels of bias that prevent them being considered equally, or considered at all. Sadly, that can be a stark reality at senior levels. At that point we can only support individuals within those businesses to find better employers who can demonstrate their ability to see, value and progress women. At other levels this insidious reality has a less visible but no less detrimental impact on individuals and their employers. We know that the case is widely understood, but as last year’s Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development report showed, the issue is that organisations don’t know how to increase diversity and more importantly, how to create an inclusive culture.

We’ve also seen that many companies take a sheep-dip approach to diversity ‘training’ such as unconscious bias training and that it doesn’t work. The more programmes that are run, the less benefit they deliver, as people decide in advance to put up barriers to the messages and judgements that they feel are being imposed upon them. Many men, in particular, feel alienated and threatened. This is not a formula for change.

And support for women is often equally ineffective. Most of the programmes for women are simply standard management or leadership development programmes with a different badge or which just exclude male delegates to qualify as a women’s programme. The companies delivering them have jumped on the Diversity and Inclusion bandwagon, but they have no knowledge of what issues need to be addressed, let alone the causes of those issues. So, they make no real progress in equipping women to negotiate the additional challenges they face.

Our conclusion is that we must come at this from a different angle if we are to succeed in creating meaningful change across workplaces. We need to create a context and a proposition that is compelling. One which attracts managers and leaders to engage positively in and then become advocates of, as they model new thinking, new approaches and techniques and showcase the breadth of benefits to individuals, teams and functions; to organisations’ top-lines and bottom-lines, to employee satisfaction and to external reputation.

WMs: How much did you draw on the data in your annual surveys?

DP: The annual surveys are built on our foundation research which enabled us to distil a portfolio of the most significant, effective and widely applicable strategic enablers of women’s success. Analysis of three years of survey data has then enabled us to identify and measure what we believe is probably the most significant and pivotal feature in the landscape of gender diversity and inclusion, which is the Contribution-to-value gap. This is the difference between the extent to which people speak up (i.e. contribute, whenever they ‘could or should’) and the extent to which their contributions are valued. We compare those who consistently speak up, with the proportion of respondents who report that their contributions are consistently valued.

The gap this year was 22.2%, a gap which has increased by 14% since 2017. We’ve also modelled the cost this represents to employers, by looking at the proportion of their employee costs that this represents, based on the proportion of women they have in their workforce, either in total or using the gender profile of their employee data and salaries that they report to HMRC in terms of their gender pay gap reporting. Hence, we can directly measure the annual cost of valuing women less.

Our argument is that this lost return on investment can now be reduced through the systematic embedding of the habits developed through the Pause for Success programme.

But far more than that we argue that when you explore the other communities across an organisation which are undervalued, either on an on-going basis or situationally, using this data and these models, you can now extrapolate the implications in terms of loss of return on investment and opportunity costs to the organisation and see clearly the scale of the case for implementing these programmes to shift the contribution-to-value profile across the entire organisation.

WMs: How did you structure them?

DP: Firstly, we wanted to create an intriguing and attractive proposition for potential delegates and one that would clearly demonstrate commercial benefits and return on investment to the business – the latter being important to help HR / Learning & Development/ Diversity & Inclusion [D & I] to secure funds which are so very thin when it comes to anything connected to D & I.

Looking at the science that affects business decision-making has a wide appeal, and particularly to those who can be put off by unconscious bias workshops and the like. So that is where we start: Introducing facts about how and why human brains produce the systematic errors of judgement that impact the biggest to the smallest decisions – from mergers and acquisitions (think RBS) to partnering (think Facebook and Cambridge Analytica) to the smallest day to day business decisions. This creates an understanding of the scale and importance of the topic and shows that everyone is vulnerable.

We introduce a number of the most common and significant cognitive biases affecting workplace decisions – the overconfidence effect, sunk-cost bias, anchoring, etc – and unearth examples in and beyond the business (Brexit provides a rich source of catastrophic examples). This creates the connection and immediate relevance.

In this context it is then natural to introduce the concept of people preferences and how we make systematic errors in who we listen to, consult, involve and the detrimental impact those unconsciously driven choices can make on meeting outcomes, project outcomes, business outcomes and the individual or individuals concerned.

This route into the topic means that delegates are open, enquiring, intrigued and able to identify salient situational and on-going examples and then scope the impact of those sub-optimal choices. Given that we have based this on the science of cognition – how human brains work – we can offer solutions that enable delegates to be better managers and leaders. This is achieved by giving them simple tools and techniques to anticipate and avoid the most common systematic decision-making errors and by providing simple approaches to everyday interaction situations (meetings, calls, emails, water cooler conversations, ad hoc socials) that enable contributors to be heard, and to know they’ve been heard. This includes a business game developed in Denmark called Mosaic which uses gender-centric dilemmas to explore, test and practice the skills required to lead inclusively.

WMs: What are the aims of the programme?

DP: The aim is to close the contribution-to-value gap experienced by women and many other groups and individuals in the workplace. Therefore, it targets all managers and leaders who make decisions, including people decisions (even the smallest people decisions, such as running a meeting or a project). We aim to provide a programme that managers and leaders positively want to attend. And then to provide them with the wherewithal to make better business and people decisions. That includes the providing the insights, approaches and motivation to ‘demonstrably attend’ to all contributors.

WMs: What was the response to the first workshop?

DP: The first pilot’s introductory session (of a three-workshop programme) was the last couple of hours of day two of a broader management development programme and the delegates were tired. They were quiet and I was worried that the content wasn’t resonating, but it turned out the we were opening them up to something entirely new and fascinating. Bringing the science of cognition – the mechanics of thinking that drive the systematic errors humans that undermine decision-making – proved to open up a hidden compartment of powerful potential in their management and leadership tool kit that was received with stunned relief. Delegates rapidly connected with the examples of cognitive biases that we explored.

One of the instances of flawed decision-making found by a delegate and acted upon between the first and second session was a sunk-cost bias leading to the business spending an ongoing £10,000 per month despite it now being utterly clear that they would get nothing back for it. So that first session alone saved them £120,000 per annum!

Approaching the topic of people preferences – the perhaps infamous topic of unconscious bias – from the context of cognition and decision-making meant that the exploration of this vital subject was embraced openly and positively, with gender coming a long way down the path of their discovery. So, the subsequent business game (Mosaic) which gives the opportunity to work with real inclusion dilemmas using predominately gender examples was embraced without any barriers up, so people were able hear different and difficult perspectives, consider, learn, respect and come out with new understandings and skills.

WMs:  Were you surprised by the response?

DP: I was blown away. I hadn’t anticipated how immediate the impact would be, nor how excited / motivated / grateful people would be to have insights that they could apply quite simply – using the Pause for Success techniques – which would mean that they will simply do better at their jobs. Their confidence soared because they had a structure to ensure their decision-making was more robust than it had a chance to be before. They recognised the value of having ways to check their thinking, broaden their hearing and horizons to ensure that the best inputs and people are included at the
right time in the right way to achieve the best outcome.

They were grateful and relieved to have the rationale to pause a situation that would result in a poor outcome or just a stupid decision grabbed at because of an immediate, apparent pressure.

WMs: What was the response to the second workshop, and did you have people going who did not attend the first?

DP: The second cohort swelled in numbers on the basis of the buzz that had been created by the first one just a few weeks previously, so people who weren’t on the main management development programme had the opportunity to get involved and broaden the extent of new perspectives and understandings about who was valued or not it the business and how flawed assumptions were able to persist unchecked.

The second cohort brought more unexpected and significant learnings for them and for me and uncovered benefits for their organisation of a different type. When they explored communities, processes and scenarios in which there might be people whose contributions were valued less because of who or what they represented they discovered two very significant functions in the sale-to-delivery process that they had ignored and positively excluded. Sales were the hero function while warehousing and logistics were the poor relation whose input was considered irrelevant because of this form of function-bias. This, they realised, meant that they had never built into costings a whole range of factors that could significantly impact profitability and decisions about what they could or should offer to customers in terms of their bespoke product combinations which is the crux of their business proposition. This is a huge oversight driven by the same dynamics which cause gender bias.

They realised that their hero function eclipsed, ignored and undermined the engagement of other functions, such as back office operations, marketing and product management. Things will now change.

WMs: Why do you think this approach is engaging line managers?

DP: Being responsible for making decisions is actually a point of vulnerability. The outcomes of decisions are the basis for judging people’s performance which obviously has significant implications for individuals. What this gave people was a new understanding of where systematic weaknesses lie in making good decisions and it gave them simple principles, tools and techniques to avoid these pitfalls and engage with the resources that will result in stronger decisions and better outcomes. I think this feels hugely reassuring. In an increasingly uncertain world this brings some comfort through increasing confidence in one’s capability to deliver a good job.

*Tomorrow: Diana speaks about the broader issues raised by her research.

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