When I was running Mercer’s diversity and inclusion consulting practice, the head of remuneration from a large public sector company asked to meet with me about their approach to pay equity. They’d done a comprehensive analysis slicing and dicing the data and no matter what way they were looking at it, they couldn’t find a gender pay gap. They had presented the findings to their CEO who told them they must be wrong. We know women get paid less than men, look again, was their response.
Having worked with very clever analysts to run dozens of pay gap analyses in my time, it made perfect sense to me why there wasn’t a pay gap. There was gender balance at all levels of the organisation and being part of the public sector meant their pay levels were highly stratified. As a result, pay was determined by level and tenure; discretion (and its cousin, bias) had little part to play. That doesn’t guarantee pay equity if promotion rates, starting salaries and access to overtime isn’t analysed, but in this case all variables were highlighting equity.
That conversation and many others like it, got me wondering…how do we avoid dogma, righteousness and a victim mindset from infiltrating the inclusion and diversity agenda?
As these examples became more apparent, the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with women and men about their working experience started to tally into an interesting story about what it takes to thrive at work. I found that when you peel it back what women need, is much the same as what men need.
We all need a sense of purpose in what we do - that our role and the company we work for matters in some way beyond making money. We want to feel trusted by our peers and managers, and we want to trust them. We want to know that our colleagues have our back, that they’ll follow through on their agreements and they’ll give it to us straight. Clear feedback and candour means we all know what’s expected and where we need to grow.
We also need to feel heard, valued and appreciated. And when we do, our best thinking happens - together. When we come from this position of trust, empathy and gratitude – we create together, instead of jockeying for positional power. That means 1 + 1 = 3, because we can lead with curiosity and openness, instead of righteousness and ego.
When the women and men I speak to describe their best environments, it sounds like this (although using different words). And when they describe what’s getting in the way of them performing, it’s some version of the absence of this.
When you look into the neuroscience and physiology of potential and decision making, this human story starts to make perfect sense. Best summarised by Professor Paul Gilbert and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, our brains shut down when they’re threatened so they can focus on survival while our creative, problem solving powers are unleashed when we feel safe, connected and valued.
These are very human, universal truths. Yet we’ve been having this conversation about diversity and inclusion through this lens of identity and difference. And while great progress is being made on lots of fronts, most organisations struggle to really engage men in the conversation – they just can’t see why it’s relevant to them. Backlash or passive resistance results.
This is why I think there’s a better, more inclusive way to have this conversation. When we talk identity first, we focus on difference and division. We inevitably get enthralled by the drama of it all where there are victims, heroes and villains. Our need to be right creates a dogma and when you don’t subscribe to the dogma, you get vilified in an ultimate win/lose battle. In the end we just have a whole new layer of company politics to manipulate and navigate.
When we start with human first, we’re invested in unity and commonality. We can avoid the drama and instead double down on conscious personal responsibility. And when we let go of being right, we can be in the space of openness, curiosity, and connection. Which takes us to the place of truth-seeking and lays the foundation to dissolve the power struggle of company politics.
Recasting this topic is about more than engaging men. Getting to the root cause of the issues is at the heart of my agenda. I’ve seen so many fantastic flexible working, paid parental leave, inclusive leadership and other programs fail to gain traction because they fail to tackle the hard stuff – how ego and insecurities get in the way of the decisions we make and our relationships with others.
That’s why I’m offering an alternative way to creating teams and workplaces where everyone does their best work. It starts with understanding and shifting how we show up and how we can get ourselves out of the way, before we can effectively value people and work together so we can solve big problems. Constantly adapting and growing is the endgame. I’m finding there’s something in that for everyone.