Turning the telescope

Diana Parkes from Women’s Sat Nav to Success discusses why traditional approaches to bias in the workplace are not working.

Mature Women


In part two of our interview with Diana Parkes, founder of Women’s Sat Nav to Success, she talks about the wider implications of her new pilot initiative, Pause for Success, which aims to encourage employers to value all of their employees and so drive gender balance. 

Workingmums.co.uk: Do you think taking a wider approach to the issue of valuing employees is more likely to have impact than something that is very gender specific?

Diana Parkes: Absolutely. Delegates in the pilots were open and engaged throughout. They were identifying the under-valued groups and discovering the implications and what they needed to change and why. And therefore, positively grabbing the tools and techniques to enable them to work differently and more inclusively.

It’s clear that there is resistance to programmes and workshops headlining unconscious bias, gender, diversity and inclusion. People who do attend, often because they have to, have checked-out mentally before they’ve walked through the door. We know that sheep-dipping doesn’t work and raises more barriers than it lowers.

Using this approach – turning the telescope – opens up a far wider vista and therefore a far greater breadth of communities and occasions which benefit. Women become ‘just’ one of those communities. Reducing the gender pay gap becomes one of the measures of success.

WMs: How does this fit with your own training in behavioural psychology?

DP: I took my degree in psychology recently because I wanted to understand the root causes of the inequalities that persist in the workplace and, in particular, I wanted to understand why it’s so intimidating and deeply difficult for women to self-promote. If we are to make meaningful, sustainable change we must be clear on the drivers of the human dynamics we are dealing with. I found the answers I needed.

These are driven out of the work of Henri Tajfel who survived extermination camps in World War II and then sought to understand how one group of humans could isolate another group and persecute them. An extreme starting point. However, his work showed how and why we categorise people into groups and seek to be part of the groups with higher status. Members enjoy the privileges that come to that group – and which the group therefore defends – and they also gain the mental health benefits of the higher self-esteem that comes from that association. To be a higher
status group you must have a group to compare and contrast your group with. The ‘higher’ group emphasises the apparent superior qualities it has and exaggerates the opposites in the group it distances itself from, but links to, as evidence of its superiority.

The impact on the ‘out-group’, as it’s termed, is significant. And one feature that is relevant in particular here is the impact on self-esteem. When society supports and reinforces a group’s status and apparent superior characteristics, as our culture has for centuries with men and women, then the out-group absorbs those societal beliefs, and while ‘members’ may fight to counter them, they still persist in their unconscious.

So, we can start to understand why it is so deeply difficult for women to face the prospect of putting themselves forward for opportunities or rewards, given that they are living and working in a society which still reflects a received wisdom that men have more of what it takes to be successful in many workplaces, fields, functions and hierarchical levels. The unconscious and sometimes conscious narrative put forward by women to defend themselves from confronting the catastrophic situation in which they anticipate hearing that actually they’re not good enough, is that if they were ready for x, y, or z (promotion, pay grade, bonus, training) they would have been offered it. So, they wait until their worth and readiness is recognised.

Our research has explored to extent to which this undervaluing is experienced by women at work. The annual Women’s Sat Nav to Success Surveys measure [among other key dimensions] the extent to which women contribute (whenever they ‘could or should’) and the extent to which their contributions are valued. The gap between the two – the Contribution-to-value gap – is now 22.2% in the UK.

The micro-messages that communicate this under-valuing of contributions are real evidence, not over-sensitivity. Research over many decades has identified the differences in the extent to which we hear, remember, attribute, trust and support the contributions of those who we expect to value compared to those we don’t. Individuals can see and read these micro behaviours and micro-messages at work, in meetings, in corridor conversations, in responses – or the lack of them – to communications, in terms of what they are included in or excluded from. And this all has an impact.

Clearly it causes disengagement and impacts outcomes for an organisation if people who are members of lower status groups experience these micro-iniquities persistently. But the truth is that the vast majority of people at work will have experienced being a member of a lower status group whether that is in certain meetings, teams or projects or on an on-going basis because they are not in the ‘hero’ function.

When we look at it like this, we see that undervaluing communities and individuals is very widespread and this should matter to organisations. If HR, marketing, accounts, warehousing and distribution, part-time employees, off-site employees, quiet employees etc etc do not have their contributions valued then this is an opportunity cost to the well-being, performance and competitive proposition of the organisation.

By modelling the lost return on the investment in terms of the cost of employing people by applying the contribution-to-value gap experienced by women we can start to extrapolate the cost of the contribution-to-value gaps across the whole organisation.

This is how the case has been constructed that has resulted in our pilot programme to enable individuals in organisations to work around, and overcome, the people preferences they have, whether they are about women in leadership or people in marketing; and wherever and whenever they might present themselves at work in a way that could limit outcome potential and engagement.

We can’t change these preferences, but we can turn the telescope and see that they occur daily and widely, and undermine outcomes, and if we can recognise this human, on-going reality we can then decide to create workarounds that enable us to develop the habits of attending to, and demonstrably valuing, all contributors. Simple habits can be learned to ensure that meetings, calls, succession planning, company socials, cooler conversations, etc are truly inclusive.

WMs: How are you moving forward with the workshops?

DP: As you can imagine this new approach is igniting interest as we start to present the findings of the 2019 Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey and demonstrate how the implications of our total body of research has led us to this conclusion about how to successfully and efficiently address the challenges of inclusion and without putting anyone off. With the evidence of the very tangible impact of our pilots we are looking forward to the challenge of resourcing all the programme we expect to be running. Hence, we will also be offering the opportunity for coaches and trainers to become accredited to deliver the Pause for Success programme.

WMs: There are a lot of initiatives around linked to the gender pay gap. Is there enough focus on long-term impact rather than short-term box ticking?

DP: Given the lack of progress and even back-sliding on the gender pay gaps reported this year, it’s clear that not enough of the right things are being done. We’ve seen a huge influx of suppliers in the market claiming to deliver women’s development programmes, but there are only a tiny proportion of these organisations who do any more than re-badge their standard programmes as ‘women’s’ programmes. They have no understanding of the causal issues and therefore nothing to offer that addresses them. However, as good marketers they secure the contracts and organisations can feel that they are doing something proactive that targets the challenge.

They are doing something, just not the right thing, and the danger is that when, not if, these interventions fail to deliver, more money will not be forthcoming to do what actually works, nor will employees want to participate a second time round – feeling that it’s wasting their time and that this work is exposing women as a ‘problem’ that is hard to address, hence making life harder for female employees.

So, there’s a lot of ‘just do something’ activity happening across the board. And it’s still a daunting challenge for HR / Diversity & Inclusion / Learning & Development to get the leadership of most organisations to see this as a strategic imperative. This means that budgets are flimsy, inadequate and short term, so three–five-year or on-going change programmes simply can’t be developed. A few women will get to go on a few modules and then other priorities emerge.

*Read part one of the interview about the detail of the pilot programme.

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