Time for frame breaking change – our daughters need to see, as well as believe

Jane KenyonI watched the film Made In Dagenham last night and jumped off the sofa, cheering at the last scene where the women from the Ford plant stood proud with Barbara Castle, the then Secretary of State (1968) whilst she announced their victory and the Government’s commitment to what was to become the Equal Pay Act of 1970. To think this was 44 years ago and the battle is still not won. Don’t get me wrong I think these women were awesome and watching their fight makes me very proud. It also proves to me, again, how important a unified voice is, as a handful of women became a sisterhood and literally brought the Ford business to its knees. Inspirational stuff.

It also made me think about sisterhood and our voice today. Are we as committed to the campaign for equality in the workplace? Or do we believe the job is done? Do we band together or do we stay quiet for fear of being seen as too demanding or a raving feminist (whatever one of those is??). Have we become a society more focussed on individual rights with the mentality of ‘I am OK so I am not going to rock the boat or support others who may not be?’

Personally if I hear one more man announce with furore ‘gender parity at the top is no longer a nice thing to have, it is a business imperative’. I will scream. Why? Because I don’t believe them! Words are cheap and in most cases the action is sadly lacking. If they truly believed this statement surely they would be taking positive steps to make it happen, the job would be done or well on the way.

The only thing that makes me more angry is to hear women, already at the top, echo the same sentiments when their organisations are doing little to effect change and banish the unconscious bias still apparent in recruitment and promotion practices across the board.

I recently attended a conference titled ‘Diversity – The business case for gender parity’ hosted by a leading bank. As the speaker was over an hour late the panel of two senior women and two senior men all from the bank, facilitated a Q&A session. This was planned for the end of the event but was brought forward to kill time whilst we all waited for the high profile speaker to show. This debate highlighted the ‘all talk and little action’ mentality perfectly. The talk was word perfect but the action was either misguided, non existent and/or flawed.

The senior women at the bank proudly shared the massive action the bank was taking to close the gap and change the status quo internally – 50/50 gender appointments for graduate entrants; flexible working; recognition of female leadership qualities and company wide training on unconscious bias in recruitment and promotions. Sounded great eh? Apart from the graduate recruitment – at a time when we have more female graduates than male this is hardly a coup?

Then came the killer – the male representative at the bank then asked his view on the unique leadership attributes women bring to the table and the bank’s credibility took a nose dive. Here was his response. ‘Well I see no difference in men and women, successful people are the same. Women do well in xxxxxx. For example I have a woman on my team who is bright, good at her job and has been promoted many times and still manages to look after her kids and husband.’ So much for unconscious bias training, maybe he was off on that day?!

What was more frustrating was the lack of response from the women on the panel. They did not even blink at his cringeworthy indiscretion, despite the audible intake of breath from the women in the audience. Is this ignorance, apathy or another example of unconscious bias?

I was left wondering if you need to be outside the system to influence and change it? Are we expecting too much from women who have to work within this male indoctrinated culture? Is it too hard to create dissonance with the status quo at the same time as looking after your own career interests?

One of the most important lectures I ever attended as part of my MBA many years ago was on the subject of change in corporate cultures. Forgive me for launching into an academic model but this one helps identify what is going wrong for me.

Apparently there are only two types of change – incremental and frame-breaking and it is imperative to classify the nature of change you are hoping to effect correctly to secure success. Mis-diagnosing the type of change can be catastrophic and doom any change programme to failure, from day one. All organisations experience both types of change along the way. Incremental change is a permanent fixture for any successful organisation – new customers, IT systems, continuous improvement doctrines, etc. but frame breaking change comes around less often and when it does the nature of the shifts needed demands focussed effort and investment.

This is where I think we are going wrong. Equality and changing the culture in organisations is frame breaking change yet we are attempting to implement subtle shifts and tackle endemic sexism incrementally. This is not working as if you identify frame breaking change as incremental, you give people too much time to subvert the process and we see this happening all the time, particularly by men who want to retain the status quo (in most parts). Frame breaking change needs strong leadership from the top, it needs powerful role models, men and women of gumption not afraid to step up and speak out. It needs clear targets and accountability and it needs buy in across the company with real consequences when it is disregarded.

On the flip side if you identify every change necessary in an organisation as frame-breaking this is also a recipe for disaster as people are always in the throws of a ‘perceived’ major change programme and motivation suffers. Then when the need for real frame breaking change arrives, and it will, people do not step up, nor do they believe the seriousness of the change as it feels like just another day at the office of permanent change programmes!

It is time for frame breaking change ladies! Now is the time for courage, focus, gumption, targets and most importantly ACTION! How will we attract the next generation of female leaders without any of this?

Jane Kenyon is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.

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