Understanding attitudes towards gender equality and how they impact the workplace
By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin
Stereotyping and prejudice
The most persistent and pervasive barrier to achieving gender equality in workplaces, and in society generally, is the attitude that people hold about it. In psychology-speak, people hold stereotypes about women and men and their expected behaviours and roles in life. Stereotypes start out as schemas or shortcuts to make sense of the world. We learn to create schemas based on what we are told and what we experience. So a schema most of us have is that clouds in the sky mean it might rain. We have learnt this schema probably because our parents told us about what happens when there are clouds in the sky. After we test this out for truth and get wet a few times, the schema reminds us to take steps to stay dry and warm. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t, but the schema stays in place.
An obvious and widely-held schema about gender is that women are better at caring for people than men. The schema becomes a stereotype when we apply it to all women indiscriminately (i.e., all women are better carers than all men), and it becomes a prejudice when we use it to judge the behaviour of all women based on it (e.g., women who prioritise motherhood are ‘good’ women and women who don’t are ‘bad’ women). So a woman who aspires to be a CEO may be passed over for the role because the people making the decision have an embedded schema that women are best suited to mothering, and – often without conscious awareness – they react negatively to women who do not conform to that schema.
We hold stereotypes and prejudices about men as well of course, which we apply in the same way – judging individual men based on whether they do things we think men should do (be strong and dominant, for example) rather than things we think are inappropriate for men (be gentle and caring, for example). A man who aspires to be a nurse or a receptionist may be passed over for a role because the people making the decision have an embedded schema that only women are suited to this work. We all have unconscious biases (prejudices) about a range of things and while unconscious bias training can lead people to have an ‘aha!’ moment or two, it rarely leads to any sustainable behaviour change.
How to understand the beliefs that people hold about gender equality
As a general rule, we don’t talk about our schemas or prejudices with other people (except maybe in unconscious bias training) and often we have no real awareness of how much they affect our decision-making. This is one of the reasons why changing your recruitment practices is vital if you genuinely want to improve gender equality in your organisation – people who recruit on ‘gut instinct’ are always operating on a schema, and schemas can be wildly inaccurate, even though they make the person holding them feel comfortable. Consider these two scenarios:
I’m taking my umbrella today because there are clouds in the sky. I know the forecast says there will be no rain, but I am taking my umbrella anyway, because I will feel safer if I have an umbrella with me today.
I’m not going to hire that young woman I interviewed for the position. She has a great degree and excellent experience but I felt more comfortable with the young man I interviewed, even though he had less experience.
In both cases, these people were making decisions based on how comfortable they felt rather than on objective facts (it isn’t going to rain today; she is a better candidate than him). That’s how prejudices or unconscious biases work.
To understand the beliefs that people in your organisation hold about gender equality, you need to find a way to have that conversation or gather that information. It might be through a survey, focus groups, interviews, employee forums… there is a wide variety of methods you can use to find out what people think.
Tapping into attitudes and beliefs that lie outside conscious awareness requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of the behavioural theories and processes that underlie schemas, along with well-developed skills in how to devise questions or conduct focus groups/interviews that can reveal those unconscious belief structures, and how to analyse and interpret the data.
Someone conducting this kind of research might use validated scales and inventories such as the Harvard Implicit Association Inventory (IAT), or they may develop their own constructs and questions to measure them. While many people use the IAT as a kind of ‘look-see’ at unconscious biases, the interpretation of results should only be done by someone qualified and who has a solid and deep understanding of the behavioural theories that underpin the tests.
What to do with your new understanding
Once you have undertaken some research that tells you about the attitudes your employees hold about gender equality, the interpretive analysis should identify the most common beliefs among them. This presents an opportunity to address these issues in the workplace. An ethical consideration at this point is whether an employer has the right to demand change in relation to an individual’s deeply held belief structures. An excellent rule of thumb is, ‘only in so far as they affect their behaviour at work’. Essentially, you are asking people to adopt a set of behaviours in the workplace that are consistent with your organisation’s stated values in relation to gender equality. Whether they choose to adopt them outside the workplace is an outcome that employers can’t control.
Changing people’s attitudes and behaviour can be difficult, and it is not possible to design a half-day course that will lead to any sustainable attitude or behaviour change. For this reason, creating change in this space means taking the long view. You might adopt a number of strategies to challenge traditional beliefs over time, such as:
- Use deliberate gender flipping in communications – e.g., pictures of men doing parenting work and women doing construction work; receptionists called Bruce and engineers called Katie.
- At ‘women’s events’, interview some men about how they balance work and family responsibilities
- Review and change policies and procedures that allow or support traditional attitudes, particularly in recruitment, promotion and performance review. For example, set up unambiguous guidelines around recruitment practices – shortlists and panels that must be gender balanced etc. Put checks and balances in place to help ensure fairness in the process. Create sign offs on the process as well as the outcome. These things may not change a person’s attitudes or beliefs, but they place controls around how those attitudes manifest at work.
- Engage an expert in the field to undertake regular discussion forums with small groups of employees to talk about ways to change behaviours that affect gender equality in the workplace.
How can we help
If you are looking to better understand the beliefs and attitudes held in your organisation, and improve gender equality in your organisation, we’d love to help. Check out theagendaagency.com.
About The Agenda Agency
Dr Heidi Sundin is the Director of The Agenda Agency — a boutique consulting firm specialising in corporate strategy, SME growth and diversity strategy. Heidi works with organisations to drive growth, innovation and gender diversity. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer-centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans strategy development and creating transformational programs across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors.
Dr Linda Peach, is a Diversity and Gender Equality consultant and Senior Manager at The Agenda Agency. Linda is an expert in gender equality and diversity more broadly in the Australian context. Linda specialises in diversity data analytics and research, reporting and support for accreditation programs. Linda uses her deep analytics and research skills to investigate issues around gender representation, pay equity, flexible working arrangements, recruitment and promotion to help organisations improve gender equality in their workplaces.