Tackling 'gender fatigue'.

our CEO Chris Parke shares his thoughts on the rise of gender fatigue and what you can do to tackle it.

The recent Hampton Alexander update has highlighted that 1 in 5 FTSE 350 organisations remain challenged by the levels of gender diversity at senior levels. Many have only one or no women on their Boards, and as with FTSE 100 organisations, struggle with a strong pipeline of diverse talent to executive levels.

Whilst we have this backdrop, I’m increasingly aware of two important trends across the work that Talking Talent delivers with over 150 global clients. The first is that for an increasing number of organisations there is a “gender fatigue”. Senior leaders and senior managers, more broadly, are starting to zone out when the topic is raised. This is partly because of the prevalence of the topic but it is also because male leaders can feel blamed for the status quo which creates a defensive response. 

The second is that there are increasing examples where men within organisations are feeling at a disadvantage to diverse groups. They have started vocalising their sense of unfairness that some of the current initiatives focusing on distinct diverse groups, outside the majority, is leaving them at a disadvantage. White men are losing out.

I think both these challenges highlight the importance of leadership buy-in, support and sponsorship for targeted initiatives. There needs to be visible, active support with clear positioning. That’s different from passive support where leaders say all the right things but when the moment arrives lack the behaviours and actions to legitimise a chosen stance. There is a very real need for sophisticated change management and high-quality communications as part of inclusion initiatives.

Take women’s leadership programmes as an example here. Clients that have developed a clear business case, rationale and success measures for why they are focusing on generating a more gender-balanced pipeline are far more likely to succeed in maintaining the momentum. As are organisations that involve key stakeholders as part of the programme; sponsors, business leaders, line managers of participants, HR leadership all need to be integral in order to drive true systemic change. When the inevitable challenges come from employees as to “why are they getting this attention and not me?” the responses need to have clarity and be anchored back into business or functional rationale.

The decision of being exclusive in order to, in the long term, drive inclusive cultures will seem a contradiction without leadership support and expert communications.  Unless it is positioned precisely it will offer up an opportunity for the majority to revolt and undermine initiatives. I am starting to hear more complaints about how it's impossible to get noticed unless you are a “woman or black” as evidence of this.

It is important to remind employees that these programmes exist to create safe environments for participants to openly discuss intrapersonal, interpersonal and systemic challenges that clearly exist in organisations. Otherwise, why would women consistently fail to realise their potential given there is no lack of competence or ambition. On the contrary! It also helps if you can point to case studies of similar programmes that have been a success, which is where Talking Talent’s 15 years’ experience and our global client network proves so powerful. A financial service client who has increased their senior management level women to 36%. Working parents’ programmes, helping global clients retain carers with talent retention percentages improving by double figures in many clients. Key to ensuring a diverse talent pipeline.

The final reflection is how important it is for senior male leaders to be actively involved in sponsoring programmes and delivering key communications. I cannot overstate this enough. The clients that have male advocates who deliver precise and timely interventions to support initiatives focused on inclusion and gender diversity are heads and shoulders above. It negates the challenges that get presented by the employee male majority. Indeed, if male advocates do not exist at the right level experience shows that programmes lose momentum and get drowned out by the white noise.  

Spending time to coach, develop and advise your male leadership support is, therefore, a fundamental cornerstone to any inclusion strategy. This is why TT helps clients develop inclusive leadership capability as a priority. One development here is that following the momentum of the #Me Too campaign, some men need even more encouragement to take to the podium and become active supporters. It is an unfortunate residual, but I can see that men’s fear of saying the wrong thing or tripping up over language has been heightened. The stakes now feel far higher even if their intention is overwhelmingly positive. It can seem as if the world is watching and waiting for a mistake. All of us involved in creating more inclusive workplaces should be mindful of using accessible language and encouraging advocates to become active in a way that’s authentic for them. I’d like to see us opening the dialogue out rather than closing it down by being overly judgemental. 

I’m coming full circle, but we can’t do this unless we are presenting psychologically safe spaces for a meaningful dialogue to happen and learning to occur. Clients continue to come to Talking Talent for their expert coaching led approach to help with this challenge. It is also why programmes focused on specific demographic groups are still incredibly important, particularly for organisations starting out on their journey where that safety does not currently exist, and people want to share.