Dr Neil Wooding, Director of Organisational Capability and Performance at the Office for National Statistics, often feels responsible for the unequal representation for women at work. Here he explains why he’s underwhelmed by what he sees as the failure of other men to take responsibility for “misdemeanours of their sex” and says men must lead a personal transformation in our own behaviour if women are to achieve their full potential in the workplace.
Having many spent years working with organisations to promote equality, I am perennially troubled by the lack of sustainable progress to get women on to Boards and into more senior positions generally. I was 15 when the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975 and now at almost 55 years of age I wonder what has really changed and what we might have differently if we could re-run the last 40 years.
On so many levels, we continue to rehearse the same economic arguments, justifications and moral philosophies to argue for change. Occasionally we win the fight but I am not so sure about the battle.
As an example, within my home town, the local council has recently established a community trust to run all leisure and cultural services throughout the city. Nine white men and two women have been appointed to the Board as trustees – representing a population of more women than men with a rich ethnic and cultural mix. It reminds me of the old days when men with some degree of divine authority empowered themselves to decide for all others.
My complaint to the local authority has gone unheard but my local MP has responded by saying he’s not responsible for such decisions. I am generally underwhelmed by the response of other men to own and take responsibility for the misdemeanours of their sex.
Jobs for the girls
Notwithstanding such examples of enduring sexism, on broader reflection, it seems that with the help of national campaigns and endorsement by high profile figures we have managed to make a seasonal change to the general trend of jobs for the boys. But it has often been ephemeral and come at a cost. When the champions go home and the lights go off something creeps back into the cultural shadows of the workplace and once again men ascend.
Like many men, I have often felt responsible for this pattern of enduring inequality. Convincing myself that if I am not part of the solution then I am definitely part of the problem, I have relentlessly challenged beliefs and behaviours while wearing the team shirt. Like a military campaign, I have chosen my moment, rehearsed my case, planned my attack and meticulously (sometimes surgically) taken apart the defence of the enemy. In many respects, adopting the tools of the male trade in pursuit of a virtuous outcome. But the challenge is relentless……….
So what have we learned that in the future will help us to ensure women achieve their rightful place in public life?
Making gender equality work
Gender inequality is an adaptive problem. It requires a transformational solution to create a lasting impact at a deeper and more profound human level than in the past we have fully appreciated. We need to change the meaning of gender inequality to be as deeply intolerant of it as any other transgression that injures or physically harms members of our community.
To achieve this, we need to be prepared to do things in a radically different way from the past. All too often, we treat gender inequality as a technical problem for which there is a transactional solution……. a bit like mending the plumbing or replacing something broken on the car.
Within organisational terms this means revising JDs, changing selection processes, softening the edges of the requirements placed on candidates, providing training and development to impart key skills and generally trying to be encouraging of those less confident.
These kinds of activities are about widening the gates but not really changing the nature of the game once people enter the playground. And while they have merit, the ‘leaking pipeline’ suggests they are only part of the solution.
Changing the rules of the playground
Recently, I have observed how some women who are in leadership roles and extremely competent at what they do, struggle to engage with the boys in the playground. They dislike the games of competition in which the biggest and most powerful thrive even when they may be wrong and the ‘I’ and ‘U’ ‘double-dare’ adversarial culture that advocates defend or attack as the only games in town.
They feel uncomfortable with the idea of transaction without trust, hubris before humility, solipsism instead of social responsibility and the intolerance/oppression of difference that generally accompanies a pack mentality.
This isn’t to blame every man for behaving in this way or to suggest that women are not sometimes guilty of these tactics themselves. It is to suggest that in future, we must deepen our understanding of leadership within organisations to appreciate the complex relationship between gender and human behaviour.
The value of rethinking the rules of the play ground is that we, as men, lead a personal transformation in our own behaviour and take responsibility for the role we play in helping women to achieve their full potential.
Dr Wooding will be speaking at the “Men on our Side” discussion in Wales hosted by Women Making a Difference on Thursday 12th March. For details see the Women Making a Difference website.
- Men in Wales face institutional sexism (Paul Apreda, FNF Both Parents Matter)
- Why can’t men and women work together for equality (Anita Copley, National Assembly for Wales)
- The struggle to make a difference for male victims of domestic violence in Wales (Tony Stott, Healing Men)
- Official thinking on equality and diversity in Wales excluding men (Glen Poole, insideMAN)