Do women [still] really have more to prove?

We can walk the same walk, but do we talk the same talk? Georgina Elrington looks at how the simple conditioning of genders will keep the diversity conversation going.

All sorts of people can achieve outcomes of equal impress and diversity brings interesting nuances to the tactics engaged to succeed. But just how far has the gender equality story evolved? Not very far at all according to many, and certainly not widely enough. 

Some companies are actively exceptional at setting equality standards. Technology is helping to eradicate some of the prejudicial issues that still exist in the 21st century. But at the end of the day, men and women communicate words, thoughts and body language differently because our brains are wired in different ways. No new info there and there’s nothing that can be done about the basic facts of nature. However, from a gender perspective therein may lurk a root barrier for real equality and lead to a possible disconnect in the reception of profitable evidence.

Women are less likely to self-promote. So a hiring manager may we need to ‘tease’ out accomplishments

Emma maslen – maiden voyage

As gender generalisations go women are often considered to be the softer soul while men are cast as being, let’s say, firmer. So what happens when both express exactly the same results, or put forward relevant points in the boardroom, or convey their experience and capabilities at a job interview or performance review? Emma Maslen, a board advisor to and Maiden Voyage feels that: “Women are less likely to self-promote. So as a hiring manager often we need to ‘tease’ out accomplishments from females which might be more obvious in males.”

So are there some disconnects surrounding the perception of assertiveness, power, and confidence (three different things)? Are women being heard enough when presenting evidence of success? Are they marketing themselves well enough in the work place? And, if they do, how is it received? Could women benefit by coding their communication differently to aid promotion both in terms of reputation as well as an upgrade in the company hierarchy? Why should they have to, and does that mean that they have more to prove? Emma Sinclair MBE, CEO and co-founder of Enterprise Alumni doesn’t think so. “The answer of course is no, they do not have more to prove. Or certainly they don’t in my world or my business. I suspect right now it’s more a case of ‘they shouldn’t have more to prove but they may feel that they do’. There is a lot of talk about bias that affects women in the work place including the penalties and punishment women’s careers receive when they do not conform to the socially prescribed roles and behaviours.

“Women are traditionally expected to be caring, warm and emotional whereas men are expected to be assertive, rational and objective. So, when it comes to being assessed these traits all point to men being more fit as leaders. Additionally, when women don’t fit these societally prescribed roles, they are questioned. So a decisive woman is an abrupt, bossy woman whereas a man would be commended for leadership. Perhaps it’s not therefore that women have more to prove than male counterparts but that they simply have to work harder to get the same outcome, respect and promotions?”

I happen to wonder the same thing. In fact I have come to feel that a large part of the gender diversity problem concerns ‘noticeable prowess’. By this I mean the perception of confidence when demonstrating capabilities and worth in the most evidential way. Another side of this communication relies on the ability of the individual receiving that information, how they process it, what their ingrained beliefs are, and how those beliefs got set in the first place. But, putting personal ponderings aside, the bottom line is the bottom line. Results, be they delivered with grace, volume or something in between should be rewarded with equally respectful recognition. Once scored, the next measure is who actually gets the job appointment, the promotion, the pay rise, the VP status, the CEOship. Aside from a demonstrable can-do attitude accessorised with buckets of self-assurance how much does the loudest roar actually matter?

If someone goes about their work more quietly, but just as fastidiously to bring in the same level of impressive results, are they easier to overlook? Does this add to an unconscious bias that leads to people being ostracised from progression? Does the diversity gap need to address more of the communication issues when it comes to commanding respect when both genders are highly capable of walking the same walk? Perhaps. But not in all instances as of course there are companies that already have fair recognition and selection protocols in place.

Equality can only be found if everyone is given the same opportunity to succeed


Rachel Head was recently promoted to principal consultant at Capgemini. “I experienced the process first hand and there was no agenda. In fact everyone nominated went through the same demanding process and, based on the results, either got though or didn’t. I believe we completely undermine women’s equality agenda if promotions are given without merit. Equality can only be found if everyone is given the same opportunity to succeed.”

Supporting female diversity and inclusion

“I have never seen gender as a barrier for me to prove my talent. In fact I personally took the option of ignoring it to focus on doing the best job for my clients and Capgemini. I don’t believe this is the same for all organisations and I do think some women have to work far harder to prove themselves or adapt their personal style to fit in. I never intend to compromise my own beliefs and values to try and fit in,” said Head.

We need more of this leadership example. Leah Thompson, an HCM consultant for Kainos, spoke to us on the matter and said: “Women are certainly under-represented in the industry with around 20 percent of the workforce being made up of female technologists. I’ve been very lucky working for companies like Deloitte and Kainos as they are very supportive workplaces. It helps that in my current role there are a lot of senior females in the division who provide mentoring and guidance that spurs me on to be a success, every day.

“From my own experience, getting into schools and ensuring that females are aware of the career opportunities open to them at a very young age is what will make the most difference in ensuring women don’t feel that they have more to prove. I think that over time the establishment of more industry groups like Women Who Code and Women in Tech, as well as the promotion of more female role models in the industry, has really helped encourage that confidence young women sometimes need that little bit more of.”

Ensuring that females are aware of the career opportunities open to them at a very young age is what will make the most difference


How long will the gender diversity conversation continue?

Maslen believes that we’re “plateauing in terms of progress,” and Head states: “Let’s face it, when equality wasn’t talked about it was a problem, so we need to keep the conversations going. Equality doesn’t stop with women, we need to focus on other groups of people that have been held back through no other reason than ignorance or prejudice. In my opinion we have to keep talking. We have a lot more to do to make our workplaces truly inclusive but with increased awareness we can all bring about this change.”

There is plenty of evidence that diverse teams can make a company more successful. It also makes a business more attractive as an employer. “Including women in the workforce at every level is good for business. So I’d say now that is measured and conclusive businesses can no longer afford to ignore it,” said Sinclair.

However, it is still taking a while for leading companies to promote more women to senior positions. This could be due to the late start in the journey for many entering the technology sector but we are starting to see a shift. “I think we’re finally seeing the results of STEM, conversations in our schools and universities making tech, engineering, etc. roles more appealing to all, including women,” said Head.

Sinclair said that when she first started out “nobody talked about the lack of female leaders or absence of female voices or certainly not the mainstream. In fact I am not sure I even thought about it much to be honest. My first professional job was in a bank and there was no ‘women in banking’ initiative. In fact there were barely any women in banking at all. There were no women’s meet ups, networking events, accelerators and incubators. Newspaper sections that focussed on women in leadership, such as Wonder Woman in the Telegraph, were not even conceived until 2012. Now there are female focussed networks, gender diversity focussed corporate initiatives and members clubs such as the Wing opening all over the world to bring thinking women together.”

She went on to highlight the movement of women with money and power mobilising for the cause. The likes of Melinda Gates, for example, who has committed $1bn to promote gender equality. Data is also exposing the massive inequalities faced by women such as: the pay gap, venture funding, board positions, the contribution to the economy women would make if they were fully mobilised, growth in female entrepreneurship. “It’s all being quantified,” she said. “The evidence to motivate fixing this is compelling and the topic is very much on every agenda. And bad attitudes are increasingly being met with rejection. That said, despite all the initiatives, mentoring, studies and commentary the pace of change does still seem rather glacial.”

Female leaders should make the most of the opportunities that digital platforms present


Creating a positive platform for younger women

Shilpa Shah, consulting director and leader of Deloitte’s women in technology network weighs in on this point. “All leaders have a responsibility to create a positive platform for the next generation. There is a lot of research demonstrating the influence role models hold over education and career choices, with many continuing to cite the mantra that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ Female leaders should make the most of the opportunities that digital platforms and social media present. Only one in three girls will have access to a female role model working in technology, but using digital platforms and social media can be effective in allowing people to connect and learn from a wide range of female role models.”

She also prescribes guidance from leaders to help to create opportunities for younger women to build their own profile. This could take the form of taking them to meetings with other senior leaders, finding opportunities for them to speak at events, and including them in teams when creating new propositions will benefit all parties.

Early on in my own career I made the switch from an all female marketing department for a high profile luxury brand after being seduced by the buzz of the tech industry. In the space of about a year the company I had joined grew from five people to a 50-strong highly talented and progressive workforce. Out of those 50 people five were male. If anyone was unhappy about the ratio it never reached my ears. The mentoring and encouragement that I received during my tenure there, from the female CEO, was by far the best I have ever experienced and that was back in 1999.

Head supposes that the mechanistic answer is that “we still need to work on recruiting amazing female talent and retaining it. My experience tells me that more critically we need to make sure we have great leaders in critical roles now to attract talent, where future employees look at our leaders and our people and want to be part of it. We need to continue to grow a culture where people succeed through their talent and strengths regardless of who they are.”

Tackling bias to nurture the existing talent pipeline

“Unconscious bias still exists and whether we like it or not we all have this bias, even those who are incredibly self-aware,” said Maslen. Tackling this however is complex and multi-faceted. She highlighted key issues that include having enough female role models at the top, and the sponsorship of diversity vs having a diversity strategy. “Sponsorship of D&I (diversity and inclusion) programmes is still a tick box and not a strategy involving all levels of management,” she said. In terms of multi-level management education Maslen also points out that D&I sponsorship is usually at the top. “Few companies ensure all levels of management are bought in and supportive of the programmes.” She also queries what companies are actually doing to solve the issue of pipelining and talent acquisition.

In terms of training, development, mentoring and sponsorship “the challenge cannot and will not be solved by only addressing one or two issues. A full D&I strategy is needed with all elements with actionable deliverables and targets at each level. For example I have seen many development events where an executive sponsor is present but no managers or executive team. Employees then feel disheartened and disengage. Or maybe you see external female hires and no internal talent growth or development which is killing your young talent pipeline. D&I must be a strategy flowing through every level and every team.”

Pitfalls of simply ticking the diversity box

Are there cases of companies promoting women purely to be seen as diverse without really solving the underlying attitude towards equality? “I am sure this happens,” said Sinclair. “But in so doing senior women in that leadership position can be part of positively impacting the underlying attitude issues towards leadership from an elevated position. That said, a reminder that fixing the problem is not a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue.” 

Maslen added that this goes back to sponsorship and education of the multi-level management. “There are practical ‘safety-nets’ you can put in place talent acquisition quotas and diverse interview panels. But if the hiring managers are not ‘sold’ on the benefits of diversity – nor self-aware of their own biases then there is little hope. A comprehensive D&I strategy which includes manager self-awareness is key to cracking this,” she said.

There’s plenty of evidence to prove that a diverse company is a more successful one (if they’ve hired the right skills). But we cannot hire to simply tick a box to meet diversity legislation. It would be stupid to do so if it meant bypassing the best person for the job. Great leadership, smart self-marketing and more receptive listening skills alongside AI and machine learning could help to minimise the gender diversity gap.

Skills, no matter what shape they come in, are the collective value of a company. And those skills should be rewarded in equal measure in terms of progression opportunities, respect, promotions and pay rises. We’re a human melting pot of emotionally intelligent beings whether we are male, female, or in the process of switching gender if not having done it already – which will undoubtedly add even more to the diversity story. It would be nice to believe that one day, for the right reasons, stuff like this doesn’t even need talking about.