Today, any responsible leader makes sure that no sexist culture is allowed to take place in their organization. At the same time any kind of bias is already history in first mover companies. When it comes to modern communities, gender will both be used as a strong asset – and at the same time disappear.
The list is getting long. Of the male leaders who are outed as exercising sexual harassing behavior alongside the list of leaders who let it happen unattended on their watch. And just like the law doesn’t find it sufficient to invoke ignorance, the same asserts when it comes to good leadership.
It is not enough that management simply embraces cultural change in a timely fashion; instead, it shall take an active leadership when injustices happen in the organization. This also applies when it comes to the saying: “My door is always open”. It should never have been just a metaphor but in these times of greater transparency and non-hierarchical establishment it is impossible that it is not backed up by the reality. No employee should doubt that (s)he has both the right and the duty to address the top management without fearing retaliation or ignorance when it comes to delicate matters. And knowing for sure that appropriate measurements will be taken. Likewise, the corporate culture needs to be sufficiently transparent so that the top management is of course trusted.
All of this is not only about co-workers. Nor is it only about women. It is about us being in the middle of a paradigm shift in relation to gender. It is about how those who does not follow the development will end up being uninteresting for both the coveted employees as well as the customers. All because it can lead to outdated product development and poor branding.
In this context, it is also important to distinguish between sexual harassment and sexism.
Sex (biological) and gender (social)
But let’s first go back. Because how do you know your own gender identity? Is it bound to the sex you are born with? Or is it because your feelings identify with a certain understanding of gender? Are you mirroring the culturally embedded expectations, values, aspirations and behavior?
So why is this relevant? Because sexism and bias are connected with the difference between sex and gender, and it is the matter of gender which creates the conflict.
Gender it firstly a cultural activity, which forms our identity and self-understanding over time. Women and men are often met with different expectations to both what they can contribute with to the community and what they should strive for.
Sexism is, therefore, when one sex is favored above the other. Sexual harassment is on the other hand connected to unwanted mostly sexual, offending actions (or speak) which is experienced as humiliating or degrading by the person who is exposed to it. However, both are a result of power. The core of the #MeToo movement is an abuse of power. Instead of using power to lift an organization it has been used to suppress selected employees.
The current gender revolution has been underway for many years and has now become such a strong movement that no leader with respect for her- or himself can avoid feeling a need to understand the situation. This can either be due to the fear of failing or due to a sincere interest in the matter. Regardless the reason, you can in this essay get an overview of the different aspects of which the management should be aware of in the future, if they want a workplace that is attractive to all genders. Furthermore, it will also attract the young generations who have a much more fluent perspective on gender and where especially within following a career, men differ from their dads by following their mom’s footsteps instead.
Your gender is also a competence
The first point is that gender can be a competence in itself. As long as it doesn’t stand alone. Because of the fact that we have a social gender we are met differently by our surroundings, which for many results in specific preferences and consumer behavior.
It is for example counterproductive for four men to develop a loyalty program for women (something I have experienced first-hand!), or to get two young women to develop a leasing program for male managers (also from real life). The experience of being a certain gender (or race, age, life phase etc.) powers through and determines behavior.
The first step is for the different gender’s experiences, preferences and behaviors to be recognized as having equal status. If this is accomplished it would be possible to create an organization where gender becomes an asset instead of a bias, which holds the creativity down in a group of co-workers – something that rarely creates the best results. The goal is to remove the social gender and instead focus on promoting the qualities that are archetypically attached to the feminine and the masculine. This can be done by focusing on what I call relational and productive capital which I have described this in another article.
Master suppression techniques
If you want to get a deeper understanding of the culture and look directly at the behavior, one can look at what is called the six master suppression techniques, which the Norwegians Ingjald Nissen and Berit Ås have developed. The techniques are used to dominate certain members within a group – especially women can often recognize them.
It is important to underline that these techniques are often not used knowingly! It “just happens” because it is embedded in the culture. The way to change it, however, is firstly by acknowledging its existence and that it is practiced.
If you want to participate in creating a less sexist culture, where all are heard and able to participate equally, you can start by observing how many of these six techniques are used in your workplace:
Invisibility – The individual is overlooked.
Ridiculed – The person’s efforts are mocked
Retention of information – The person is kept in ignorance about things that others are of course informed about.
Double punishment – Whatever the person does, it is met with reproach. For example, the women who are blamed for not speaking up at the time the sexual harassment happened and who are also blamed for doing so now. In other words: You are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t!
Applying guilt and shame, humiliation and insult.
The tendency of objectifying – To discuss the appearance of one or more people in a situation where it is irrelevant.´
Bias – it is not that difficult
Sara Louise Muhr is a professor at Copenhagen Business School and is currently available with the book “Gender management”. She was also involved in a sexual harassment/sexism signature collection at the Danish universities and it showed that the amount of sexual harassment/sexism appeared to be just as bad as in the parliament, the media industry, and the doctors.
Muhr has, for multiple years, taught companies and organizations how they should accommodate sexism and biases. She says the following: “The first thing I always say is that it isn’t as difficult or unmanageable as it might seem! There are two ways to approach the problem. The most popular being changing the culture and being critical towards the norms. However, it can actually end up being unmanageable to make a program to change the entire culture – and it might even not end up as hoped. Instead, I suggest simpler behavioral changes. The companies can for example use anonymized applications in relations to sex, nationality and age, so that the people hired are the best suited for the company and not based on personal preferences. The problem occurs because most people don’t think that they have prejudices and biases, or that they think that they can look past them, when the fact is that no one can.”
Nowadays multiple programs exist which uses smart algorithms to anonymize resumes, but because such a program isn’t for everyone there is a method which is a much simpler “bias-blockade”; a standardized application form where bias-generating information cannot be entered.
“It is about outsmarting your own brain because we are all a product of the same culture and we are all more or less dominated by our unconscious associations in society. For example, a leader is associated with a man while “softer” values are associated with women. Men are often asked more open questions and are thereby able to give much more fulfilling answers, while women are asked more narrow questions and therefore often considered being more “snarky” or “dismissive”. Men are also more often valued on their potential, while women are valued on their current skillset. This can be avoided if you make a schedule which all applicants are to fill out, plus you avoid the prose which many uses in their application, which often is considered a relief, and it saves time.”
Neutralizing the applicants is one way of making sure that one hires the most suited for the job and thereby further the work on removing as many biases as possible. So, it is not just about justice but also, maybe even to a much greater degree, about creating the most competitive organization.
Therefore, you must be aware of the following:
Bias is contagious and one is therefore to avoid interview panels where multiple people interview one applicant at a time. Here the risk is that the most powerful in the panel will end up dominating and influencing the whole panel’s behavior and preferences and thereby the advantages of being multiple people deciding on who to hire disappears.
Instead make one-on-one interviews and compare everyone’s notes afterwards. That will result in the least amount of bias and the most diversity.
Furthermore, the interview guide must be structured so that all candidates are asked the same questions.
“It is all about management responsibility! The management should always take the lead because they are the ones to create the dominating culture – or the ones who end up getting fired if they aren’t aware of what is going on in the world. And then I have one last thing which I would like to say to all women: You should NOT “lean in”, as Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook otherwise said. If you do that, you’ll be behind from the start, because when women try to copy masculinity they will often just be perceived as being bossy or bitchy.”
I couldn’t agree more with Muhr.
None of the sexes should copy each other because then they won´t be able to contribute with each their abilities, experiences, and creativity. Copying will never create originality, which is what society needs now more than ever. It needs original solutions to the problems that we face.
However, the most important aspect of the gender discussion is how we should strive for creating a culture where the social gender doesn’t have any influence.
It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, the social gender will always and without exception be a limitation to the individual and their ability to contribute creatively to society. We cannot, as a society, afford to have half of the population not contribute with full power only because they are limited by norms. It is a leader’s duty to create a culture where there isn’t a systematic distinction between people.
By Emilia van Hauen, cultural sociologist, board member, author
Published in Børsen 18.10.20