Towards more gender-inclusive workplaces

Amid all the discussions on sexism at work following the Westminster revelations, a webinar this week looked at how to tackle the deep-seated structural issues that underlie it.

woman presenting at board meeting


How do we build more gender-inclusive workplaces that are better for everyone? A webinar this week heard that it is not about fixing men or women, but about addressing processes and structures that can embed bias and ensuring they include everyone.

The event was organised by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College and kicked off with a discussion about whether women make better leaders, a discussion provoked by all the articles that came out in the early pandemic about New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and other female leaders handling Covid better than male leaders. The idea is that women are more risk averse than men and research shows there were fewer deaths in countries led by women and a focus more on empathetic rather than war-like language.

Dr Maddy Wyatt, a reader in Diversity & Inclusion at King’s Business School, said it was important to be careful not to stereotype women as leaders. Nevertheless, she said most women leaders have faced a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to where they are which means they may be better at flexing their leadership style and that may be a factor in leaders’ success.

Professor Rosie Campbell, Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College, said that there were too few women leaders to draw any conclusions. However, what we have seen during Covid is that some male leaders – Trump and Bolsonaro, for instance – adopted a hyper masculine style. The evidence shows that a more moderate style is more effective. Women are not encouraged to adopt the hyper-masculine authoritarian, individualist, narcissistic approach and face greater penalties if they do, she stated.  They are rated less likeable, for instance. The same is true in reverse when they are visionary – they get less recognition.

Nevertheless, Professor Campbell said good leadership is more about behaviour than biology as most male leaders do not behave in this way. Moreover, many men are disadvantaged by a hyper masculine approach. What is needed, she said, was to change how we reward leadership styles to favour those which are more based on a collective, empathetic approach.  That would be better for everyone and would bring more male allies on board – something that is vital for gender equality.

Systemic change

Wyatt said a more balanced, ‘androgenous’ approach is better for everyone where leaders are able to flex between different styles according to the context. She added that the systems and structures that favour stereotypical male traits need to be tackled to make progress. She cited, for instance, the idea that the best worker is someone with no attachments who can work 24/7, job descriptions whose language favours one sex over another or networks that exclude women or other groups.

Wyatt also spoke about how unconscious bias training is often ineffective or counterproductive because it can be divorced from people’s everyday working lives and from the processes they use. Unconscious bias needs instead to be embedded in processes, such as appraisals, she said, and D & I experts need to work more closely with HR teams, with D & I seen as a core issue and every initiative being properly evaluated for impact. “It’s not about fixing women,” she said. “It’s about fixing the culture and system change.”

There was also a brief discussion about the interview process and how hiring managers need to put more emphasis on competence than confidence. On confidence, Wyatt said people talk about women lacking confidence as if that is a female trait rather than confidence being more task-specific and something you can acquire.

When it comes to leadership, Professor Campbell said that it is also about how roles are framed. For instance, research shows if leadership positions are framed as centring on being a force for good more women apply.

The event was organised to launch GIWL’s new executive programme, Building gender-inclusive workplaces. The programme has four modules spread across nine months, spanning making the case for gender-inclusive workplaces, how bias manifests itself at work, culture change and inclusive leadership. It will mostly be taught in person with some virtual peer support groups. Applications are now open. For more information, email [email protected].

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