Gender Blindness and How to Avoid it in the Workplace
By Inga Thordar
Real impact on gender equality requires a radical rethink in organisations – and courageous leadership. One that is willing to acknowledge past inequalities and injustices and doesn’t try to wipe the slate clean with the current status quo as the baseline.
Successfully implementing gender-neutral policies means digging deep and truly addressing any underlying issues. This approach avoids building a new structure on the foundations of a broken system which will not only deny women and other marginalised groups their lived experiences but most likely perpetuate the problem.
But all too often this is where gender blindness comes into play – the practice of ignoring differences between genders, including historical differences. Gender blindness is a failure to recognise the roles and responsibilities genders are ascribed to, or have imposed upon them, in specific social, cultural economic and political contexts.
What does this mean in the workplace?
Let’s start with the lack of women in leadership – a much publicised problem and one that despite recent progress is not improving fast enough.
Women reaching top positions is still seen as newsworthy and an all-female leadership team even more so.
Senior leaders often point to women leaders in the room (normally less than 30%) as proof that they don’t have a problem in this area. Well, if you can point to the women – you probably do. It would take a long time to rattle off all the men in similar positions.
This denial of the problem is the problem – it’s hard to fix something that isn’t seen as being broken.
That gender blindness means the pipeline of potential women leaders within companies remains weak as it doesn’t get the attention needed. The loss of a single woman leader can therefore drop the percentage considerably.
The latest McKinsey report on women in the workplace demonstrates that women leaders in America are leaving their companies in droves – not because they lack ambition but because of non-inclusive culture and outdated policies both of which stand in the way of progression.
This should be a red flag to companies and a call to action for them to look at their policies.
There has been a drive to move towards “gender neutral” policies such as flexible and hybrid working for all and this should be welcomed – but only if there is genuine desire to address the problem these policies are designed to solve. That requires understanding the lived realities of many women which is contributing to unprecedented levels of burnout.
For example, understanding that women still bear the brunt of the second and now the recently added third shifts – referring to the traditional work in the home (cooking, cleaning, care responsibilities) and the planning and executions of extracurricular activities (medical appointments, timetabling etc). Most single parent households are also headed by women.
If companies and organisations don’t recognise this reality alongside the deep-rooted cultural understanding of gender roles which has helped promote the notion that men, seen as assertive, risk taking and bold, are more suited for the workplaces than women whose adjectives are often far less flattering, these policies will not lead to greater gender equality. In fact, studies have shown that women are likely to forego these opportunities to prove they are essential to the business. And the vicious cycle will continue
Acknowledging and tracking the gender split in the uptake of these policies and the effect it has on the careers of those that do take them up will prevent well intentioned actions from leading to further discrimination.
One positive change recently has been the progressive change in many companies around parental leave which has resulted in the same amount of time for both parents. This addresses several issues:
- Women/parent 1 are no longer categorised as the main caregivers by companies or societies. It’s up to the family unit to decide who that is – not outdated societal structures.
- It addresses the opportunity gap, when both parents are expected to take the same time off it means neither is discriminated against when it comes to promotions or other growth opportunities.
- Related to the above, it also tackles the gender pay gap – with both parents out for the same amount of time it means women don’t lose out as much. The same can be said for the pension gap.
We at Skating Panda believe that real impact is best delivered through tackling systemic inequities. We do this by applying systems thinking in our work to recognise the interconnectivity between policies and the connection needed between policies and purpose. This focus on structural issues will lead to better outcomes and greater equality.
If you’d like to get in touch with us to discuss how to accelerate your organisation’s real impact, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.