Recently, I wrote the article “What does equality in the workplace mean?” and I thought about the fact that I have not really experienced discrimination as a woman in my professional life. The issue of whether I make decisions as a woman or a man never really came up for me, and what I did was – this is how I felt – not consider from a gender-specific perspective.
When I was now thinking about how to expose and even confront gender inequality in the workplace, I suddenly remembered a situation that I had experienced myself and which became an example of gender discrimination for me when I looked back.
I was in a meeting with a group of managers — the only woman among men. Not an unusual situation as the IT industry is still dominated by men. The meeting dealt with a critical issue, and I realized that a change of perspective was urgently needed in order to work on problem solving. So I made my remarks very clearly, justified them and…on the one hand, they were not heard; and on the other hand, what was heard was not taken seriously. I began to doubt whether my view and perception were the right ones and exchanged views with a colleague returning from vacation. The next meeting followed; my colleague addressed the same concerns I had had, and indeed, he was heard and even showered with praise and recognition for his wise and thoughtful approach. It took some time before I realized what had actually happened there, and I was very disappointed and hurt. All of a sudden, the point was no longer about what one says and thinks, but only about who does it.
Gender inequality results from centuries-old clichés
Generally, this may be a natural way to proceed, because we certainly weigh the statements of our counterpart based on the person’s trustworthiness and reliability as well as the actual quality of the information. However, the fact that this quality is directly linked to gender is by no means “natural,” rather it results from centuries-old clichés.
I then talked about this situation with the CEO of the company, a company which has set itself “equal rights” as an important corporate goal. He was astonished and dismayed, and he found out for himself that he had not paid sufficient attention to this discrimination — in fact, he had not even really noticed it as such. In the discussion about how to deal with such a situation appropriately, it quickly became clear that the culture described on paper and the associated behavior patterns often remain abstract, and that we ourselves are much too attached to traditional patterns of thought and action.
Bypass instinctive premature evaluation
A clear view of the manifestations of gender inequality in the workplace must certainly be carefully developed in companies, because sometimes these are not so easy to uncover and much more often have not even reached the consciousness of those involved as such. After all, we all have stereotypes in our heads about what is “typically male” and “typically female.”
The obvious issues, such as equal criteria for applications, pay, identical career opportunities and funding, easily reveal that equality between men and women is practiced in only a few cases. However, unequal treatment starts much earlier — namely in an instinctive pre-assessment. Harvard professor Iris Bohnet cites as the greatest cause of disadvantage “pre-cut patterns of thought” that result in a distorted perception and thus always influence our decisions, even if we strive for objectivity.
Only if all those involved are aware that the entrepreneurial orientation is also designed to promote equality in all its facets and a sustainable approach is established for this will the issue receive sufficient attention and be able to be reflected thoughtfully.
The solution certainly cannot be that women adapt to male behavior. Rather, it is essential in the corporate environment that the leadership (team) cares about the creation of an equal working environment. Only if all those involved are aware that the entrepreneurial orientation is also designed to promote equality in all its facets and a sustainable approach is established for this will the issue receive sufficient attention and be able to be reflected thoughtfully, followed by actions.
This also prepares the foundation for shaping new “rules of the game” in the next step. If we succeed in identifying precisely the situation in which unequal treatment cannot be prevented through the existing framework conditions, because it serves the established patterns of thought, we can also change this “design” and thus manipulate appropriate behavior. In this way, we can escape stereotypes and, among other things, make decisions and evaluations that are truly gender-independent.
Practical examples in recruiting and employee evaluation
Approaches of this kind already exist in recruiting, for example. If resumes are evaluated without having information about gender, age, skin color or a photo, we are able to avoid stereotypes easily because they cannot be used at all. Because we know very well what role these criteria play in the first review of application documents and that we may even be influenced by them unconsciously when evaluating qualifications, we remove them.
Another example is the employee evaluation. In many companies, superiors let their employees judge themselves before they give them personal feedback on performance. Here, the effect of prejudice creates an imbalance, because women tend to rate themselves worse than men in comparable situations. The employee’s self-evaluation changes the perspective of the manager, which means that the manager’s own assessment can no longer be neutral. If the manager is allowed to make an assessment without the knowledge of the self-assessment, their opinion will stay free.
In addition, there is much that can be done to help people to evaluate themselves more realistically, beyond gender typing and the associated characteristics of competition and readiness to take risks that significantly differ between men and women. Feedback and encouragement play a major role in this.
Many approaches of behavioral design reduce gender inequalities
Last but not least, it is the actual design, i.e. the design of spaces, which has a proven influence on the understanding of the role of women and their position in the economic environment. Role concepts that are visualized support those that we have already practiced and learned. This can have both positive and negative effects, of which we can be aware and counteract accordingly with the goal of equality.
There are many other approaches which help to reduce the inequality between men and women through meaningful behavioral design. In the beginning, however, there is simply the willingness to start and to keep a close look on what is actually happening.