Fortunately for me, when I was working for a company where the managing director called every woman ‘love’ and every man by his actual name, I had no HR function or line manager to seek support from. But even if I had, the knowledge that if I said being called ‘love’ made me feel undermined and belittled, I would be told ‘I think you're being over-sensitive’ would have been enough to make me keep schtum and just fester. I’d be waiting for the next time. Would it be in a meeting, in front of one of my clients, or in front of my team? I’d be distracted by what that loose cannon would say and what I would have to do to counter the loss of reputation as a high-performing consultant and functional head.
But that MD, like the Cameron’s, Bo-Jos and Trumps of this world, has to be part of a dying breed, so surely that was really no big deal to endure?
And maybe I was being over-sensitive.
Having spent 10 years studying what is really getting in the way of women securing the work, recognition, support and rewards they merit*, I’m now clear that I wasn’t being over-sensitive. I was hearing yet another piece of evidence – real evidence – that women (and other groups) are valued less in the workplace.
Micro-messages and micro-inequities
Humans unconsciously communicate up to 350 verbal and non-verbal micro-messages every 10 minutes. These messages will include the communication of the biases they have towards certain people and away from others. So, when you are a member of a group that is not expected to be of the same value as members of another group you will consistently receive micro-messages that you are of less value.
My experiences of this include:
- putting forward ideas that go unheard and which, when repeated by a man 5 minutes later, are applauded and taken forward
- being a subject matter expert but being referred to a man with more limited experience, exposure and expertise in the matter to show me what I need to know
- being assumed to have the same views as the only other woman at the same hierarchical level
Research identifies a very wide range of micro-inequity communication mechanisms which can convey messages which subtly de-value and discourage:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- choice of words
- body language
- focus of attention
- micro-affirmations of others (not in your ‘group’)
Being on the receiving end of these routinely means that you learn to be on your guard because you have to try and find a way to prove that what they’re saying is not true. You have to prove this to others and you have to prove it to yourself too , because you end up doubting yourself. You have to counter these stereotype threats. But how do you do that without being perceived as over-reacting or being over-sensitive? Or, as I often hear reported about some women or members of ethnic minorities, just considered being too uptight and no fun to work with.
In last year’s inaugural Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey we were able to measure this effect - what we now term the ‘Contribution to Value Gap’. This is the difference between the how often contributions are made and how often they are valued. Below is the 2017 Contribution to Value Gap graphic from the report Stretch Potential.
Brickwall head-bashing, silent acceptance & withdrawal, or exit stage left?
If you don’t decide to fight to re-balance the wrong, one alternative that many women eventually choose, is to throttle-back and disengage. ‘What’s the point of using my brain, my time, my resources if you are not going to listen with an open mind?’
The other alternative is to get the hell out of there and find a better culture.
The costs to the performance of an organisation.
Disengagement causes the sub-optimisation of talent and when it occurs across a community then the impact is the sub-optimal performance of the organisation. While it’s hard to quantify the impact of disengagement, the Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey identifies and measures the most significant causes of disengagement, of which, the Contribution to Value Gap is a top protagonist.
Resignations are an even clearer cost to measure, along with the consequent recruitment and up-to-speed costs. However, the associated set of costs widen and lengthen when your competitor or customer is the happy recipient of your under-valued talent. Indeed, one research study in the USA found that the most common reason women leave corporate life is ‘t advance their careers’ - they set up their own businesses where they can define the culture that will enable all workers to thrive.
These are all costs that the organisation allowed itself to incur. Leaders and managers caused it through their actions and words. They created or accepted a culture that could make willing and eager, talented contributors and future leaders withdraw either partially or absolutely.
This isn’t down to the individual on the receiving end to address. This is for leadership to identify and root out through the development of simple capabilities – learned behaviours and techniques - which ensure that no group is cast in shadow.
If you are responsible for people, performance or profit you are responsible for evaluating the micro-messaging in your organisation and its impact on individuals and the outcomes and reputation of the business.
If you are seeking to reduce your gender pay gap before reporting again next April, you need to take action on this now.
*Contact me to reserve a copy of ‘Listen or Lose’ the 2018 report in October and to find out how to get your copy of my book, ‘The Women’s Sat Nav to Success: How to have your best career’.