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IWD 2021 #Choosetochallenge

By March 1, 2021 No Comments

Why #Choosetochallenge is relevant: IWD2021

I have always believed that whilst legislation is responsible for the big leaps forward in societal changes, it is through the everyday actions of individuals that change will be genuinely embedded.  This is certainly true when talking about gender parity, where all too often the legislation says one thing, but everyday behaviour tells a completely different story and why #choosetochallenge is so relevant.

Take the example of Yoshiro Mori’s comments about women in meetings or the UK Government’s recent withdrawal of gender-stereotyped advertising and it is clear, that even at the highest level, a casual disregard for gender parity still prevails.  It is only by challenging lazy stereotyping or in the case of Mori, overtly sexist comments that we will get anywhere close to gender parity being both a legal imperative and a cultural norm. This has been the case throughout the fight for women’s equality and is as relevant today as it has always been.

When you see examples such as the two above (and they are just ones I have come across in the last few weeks), it is easy to believe that as an individual there is little you can do to make an impact.  Yet, in both those cases, it was the power of social media and pressure from thousands of individuals that forced the UK Government to pull the offending advertising within a few hours and left Mori with little option but to resign* as head of the Tokyo Olympics committee. Choosing to challenge raises awareness of the issue and alters not just behaviour, but over time, the attitudes that lie beneath the behaviour.

On a more micro level, we see this very clearly in our work with organisations that are looking to increase the gender diversity of their teams. All the organisations we work with have progressive parental leave and flexible working policies designed to support female progression by enabling men and women to take an active role in their careers and their home life. However, from coaching the mums, dads and managers that work in these organisations, it is plain to see that regardless of company policy, the biggest influence on an individual and whether they feel able to thrive as a working parent is the culture they experience daily, embodied most impactfully by their manager’s attitude and behaviours.

We still encounter managers who adopt an attitude of  “oh but I didn’t think you’d want to take on a high-profile project” when a new parent (usually a mum) returns from parental leave. As I talked about in this article they could be killing with what they perceive as kindness, allowing their own biases about what they believe a working mother wants to get in the way of gender parity within their team. Managers who are prepared to challenge their own biases and set them aside to enable many versions of success in their team tend to create environments where working parents can thrive, and female progression doesn’t stall.

Conversely, we also see the need to encourage individuals to think about and challenge their own language too. I wince when we talk to mums who describe their partner in terms such as ‘he’s very good, he’s very helpful at home’ as this instantly places responsibility for domestic chores with the woman, and her partner as at best a willing assistant.  Women need to challenge their own thinking about domestic chores and childcare being their responsibility and men need to proactively step forward and not hide behind an ‘all you needed to do is ask for help’ defence.  This feels particularly important now as the evidence mounts about how COVID-19 has set back gender parity at home and work.

I am also a firm believer in the power of the bystander in situations. As neutral observers, by their very neutrality wield huge and often under-appreciated influence.  Think of this situation; a dad of a young child is on a tight deadline at work and everyone in the team is under pressure. As he prepares to leave to do the nursery pick up you hear mutterings of ‘can’t your wife take care of that’ from your manager. As a bystander, what you do next can hugely impact whether that dad hides his childcare responsibilities in future (because they won’t go away – he just won’t be open about them with colleagues) or feels able to bring his whole self to work which includes his dual responsibilities as a colleague and parent.

In this situation, a simple ‘no problem, I’ve got your handover and you’ve said we can call you if anything is urgent’ would send a strong message of support to the individual (and to women in the team who will have clocked the sexist implication of the manager’s reaction) and calls out in a non-confrontational way the kind of throw away comments from managers that hold back a culture of gender parity within a team.

These are just a few examples but for me, they show that at every level, from the state, to the individual, to the bystander we cannot not influence, by either our everyday action or inaction. We can #choosetochallenge both ourselves and others, and until gender parity is the norm, it is imperative that we do so.

Virginia Herlihy

CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It.

*Since I first wrote this article, The Tokyo Olympic Committee has added 12 women to its executive board in (albeit belated) recognition that women were underrepresented in leadership positions.  #choosetochallenge really does bring results.