Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #43. Changing the Conversation on Women in Leadership

March 06, 2023 Jean Balfour Season 2 Episode 43
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #43. Changing the Conversation on Women in Leadership
Show Notes Transcript

Jean has worked in women’s leadership development for over 25 years. In this episode she shares her thoughts about progress to date, reasons why the progress seems so slow and how we can think about it differently. 

She shares practical suggestions that she hopes will help to create movement towards gender equity.

You can find Jean here:


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Hi everyone and welcome to Making Sense of Work.Today I'm going to share my latest thinking on how it is to be a woman in business and in leadership,and some ideas about what we can do to continue to move towards gender parity.I'm recording.In March,2023,and of course we celebrate International Women's Day in March.Before I go on,I'd like to let you know that if you'd like to be kept informed about podcast episodes or to learn about our professional development courses or coach training,you can sign up to our,or you can follow me on LinkedIn Jeanbalfour or Instagram jean.balfour so let's dive in.I've been working in women's career and leadership development for over25years,running programs for women,hosting peer coaching groups,and sometimes I find myself saying that I feel like I haven't done a very good job because despite some movement,It actually often feels like we are not getting anywhere fast.It feels like we are still struggling to achieve parity in the number of women and men in leadership,and we have a long way to go.Now,I know the reasons for this are complex and systemic.And I know there's not one answer.We have systemic bias in society.We have organizations designed in a way that makes it often hard for people who have caring responsibilities to work full-time and so on.Hundreds,if not thousands of reasons why this is a complex.And for me,having lived and worked now in three different countries and run programs for women across at least10different countries,I see that the situation is different and it is ha and every woman has a different experience in each different culture.There are some countries where women and men are at near parity on leadership,but for most,we are struggling and at worst,in some countries,in some organizations,we're actually going backwards.So while we've made some great progress,We've also seen,as I've said,some things going backwards.We've seen women's rights being reduced in some parts of the world.It's at the moment,devastating to see what's happening for women in Afghanistan,able to study and to work and all the other restrictions that are happening for this podcast,I want to see if we can think a little bit differently about it and perhaps look at the opportunities and what's possible with fresh eyes.I wonder if there's parts of the story that we haven't been talking about or thinking about,and I'd like to explore those and share some of the ways that I've been thinking about it in the last couple of.It's also,I think,time for us to refresh the agenda a little bit,particularly on International Women's Day.It can feel a bit jaded at times.I personally feel we've done so much.We've run so many panels,hosted so many events.We've done so many initiatives.And yet here we are still actually making small progress,but it feels incremental.It doesn't feel like we are making a seismic change.And so part of what I want to explore today is what does that mean for us and how do we continue to have energy for driving things forward?And how do we feel okay in ourselves while we are doing that?So I'd like to take a slightly different approach.In the past,we and I have focused on things that organizations can do,and I will touch on that,but a lot of that's been about areas for us as women to grow or men to change the conversation and create change.But because we are still struggling,I wonder if we are missing some context.I wonder if we are missing some of the situation and what's happening.But first let's just take a little look at where are we now with women in leadership.I focus on.Leadership and organizations,because that's what I'm curious about here in Singapore,at the end of2022,we had21%of the people on boards were women.And last year alone,women's board appointments made up30%of all appointments.So we can see that we are moving forward in progress.In the uk,the FTSE100has just reached40%of board appointments being women.And so it looks like on the surface that we are really making some improvement.And as I've also said,this number varies from country to country,so I'm bringing out two countries,but we see that number higher and lower in different.However,these numbers actually don't reflect what's going on in the organization.These are the independent board appointments,and what we see is that once we move into the executive committees,the excos,and further down into the organization,we immediately see a drop in the numbers of women.For example,in2021,only13%of Singapore listed companies were headed up by women's CEOs.And according to one report I read,this is the highest number in the world.So we have a long way to go.We see that women heading up our large organizations is still in small numbers.At best,we're at about20.And so we need to begin to re-energize ourself.We have a long way to go and.This,of course,is linked to the experience of women.The lived reality for us,for many of us as women is difficult.I myself,I used to say I didn't really experience things,but as I've sat down and looked at it over the years,I've realized that there have been many micro behaviors of things that have happened towards me as a business owner,as a coach,working in leader.In my leadership roles that I'm pretty sure wouldn't have happened if I'd been a male business owner or leader.I mean,the most extreme example was meeting a potential client who was visibly disappointed to discover I was a woman.He had assumed by my name Jean that I was a French man,'s cause of these things that I think I've personally felt a bit stuck.I feel like we're not moving fast enough.I feel like I'm still experiencing this.I coach many,many women who tell me their stories and experiences.Experiences of direct or indirect discrimination.And so we do have to rethink it,re-look at the agenda and see if we can inject some energy and help accelerate the pace of movement.It may seem a bit strange,but I'd like to step back and look a little bit at history and see what we are experiencing now in the context of where we've come from for as far back as we can remember,and C women have held.Very specific gendered roles in most society,and there have been examples where women have been honored well for the role that they have played,but often those roles have tied them to home-based working.We also see that in many parts of society,women have been subjected to,uh,it direct physical violence.We know,you know,going right back,see women being burnt at the stake.We see these kind of direct prejudices against women that actually have resulted in harm to women.We see television full of story TV series like Bridgeton,representing a time in history where women have to play in some of the families in Bridgeton,a subservient role to men.There are many powerful women in that series,and yet we are still seeing these roles playing.The Me Too movement isn't over if it's even just begun.There are presumably deep and many stories to come out of situations of where women have been treated as sexual objects in order for work to happen.I know a woman who was being invested into the House of Lords in the uk.As she walked into the chamber,she had a male pair of the realm say,why are they letting all these bloody women in?This is only20years ago.We've got this kind of weight of stories and histories and prejudice happening,of course,for women.Oral contraception was only available since the1960s.This is,you know,the years that I was born,and so women also were falling pregnant more often,had more caring responsibilities.In my own generation.My mother stopped working when she became pregnant with me.She went back to work when I was about15,but her mother didn't really ever work and neither did my father's mother.In many ways,the women who were in leadership now are the first or second,maybe best third generation people.There are of course notable exceptions to that here in Singapore,there were many women who led the way,QU two who was leek U'S wife,was a notable leader.She co-founded a law firm.She led in some political arenas and in many ways was a great example to women and men in Singapore of what is.In recent times,we've also seen other challenges that women are experiencing in public leadership.I shared my thinking when Jacinda Den resigned,and then recently Nicholas Sturgeon in Scotland has resigned and both of them have told stories.About the experience they've had as women of some of the trolling they've had online about being women.In fact,the BBC write an article that said that Jacinda ER's resignation just went to prove that women can't have it all.They did take that headline down after a lot of complaints,but still the fact that it made it through the editorial team to be on the BBC is a sign of where we are.The fact also that society is still essentially condoning this and not seeing that we should be challenging this and that every time we see it,we as women feel a bit eroded.We feel that challenge and that difficulty.and I hear this,I know that I've said over the years,I don't think I've been too badly,directly affected,but actually I think I have been as I see,and I think some of that effect is actually the kind of psychological internal sense of having to pull against what's the prevailing themes in society.We also know that organizational work was designed on the basis of a history,a man working full-time and having full-time help at home,and that of course,for most people still isn't available.So our organizational life is designed where it's really hard for two parents,for example,to be in a full-time job unless they're lucky enough to have good caring at home or good care.Yes,our education systems haven't caught up either.I was reading in The Guardian last week that only2%of GCSE students in the UK study a book written by female author,and the campaigners,of course,were urging examples to diversify that.So we see that we are living in societies and norms that were designed around patterns that worked200years ago.They're not working now and we need to change them,but we also need to feel optimistic and hopeful that we can do this.So I was really thinking a lot about this.It seems a bit doom and gloom.I was wondering why,in a way we expect this progress to be happening so rapidly.It feels like we are pulling against a huge weight of history near and far.We're in the process of trying to overturn a millennial of experience,of lived experience,an experience where if women didn't do as they were expected,they were outcast.In some cases when they fell pregnant,they were put into asylums or they ended up poor.So we are pulling against a weight of trying to change something,but something's embedded.There's a growing body of research that suggests that past experiences,Of our ancestors and particularly those linked to trauma become embedded in our dna,and then they're passed down through the generations.So for me,I wonder whether it's possible that this millennial of experience of women struggling is actually embedded in all of our dna n not just women's.The stories are literally hardwire.So I've really begun to see that this history,this wave of history might lead to us having an inner tug or a pool inside us,which is basically trying to keep us safe.It might be telling us not to speak up or stand out or be bold,not to take a risk,not to challenge a man in a meeting or compete for another promotion.What if there's something deep,deep inside us,inside our being that's calling us to take care,to not step out of the shadows because who knows what might help him.We are feeling our own internalized protection and our own internalized sexism.And just to be clear,it's not just women who are affected.Men too have also been really affected by society's expectations about how they should be behaving in a certain way.Many men have felt this need to demonstrate their masculinity to be the breadwinner,when actually it doesn't feel a natural fit for them.So this societal norms,these historical prevailing themes have also been hard for men.An example of this is that men who choose to be the primary caregiver in their families often find it very hard to find a place in society that reflects them in that primary caregiving role.So I kind of want to say that I think it's no wonder we are finding it hard and no wonder that we are making slow pro.It doesn't justify it,but maybe we could be kinder to ourselves,both to men and women about why this feels so hard and why it is so hard.So in all of that,I really want to say there's a lot going on.We are trying to change something massive and it's going to take time,and I believe we can make that change.And I believe it's possible.What we're making that change.I'd like to share a couple of ways of thinking about it so that we can not get dragged down by the doom and gloom and we can begin to think how do we keep moving forward,perhaps with some fresh thinking,with some new ideas.The question of what we can do is women is a bit about how to remain optimistic and energetic and resilient during this,and also for organizations to think about what can we be doing.So I'm gonna share a couple of ideas around that.I'd like to start with this idea about what can we be doing as women to help us retain our resilience in the midst of all of this that's going on.A model that I find incredibly helpful,and I often share it with clients,is this idea of what's called insider outsider group dynamics.And it helps.It resonates with my own personal experience and also it seems to resonate very much with clients.I came to understand insider and outsider dynamics through Binner Canola's work.He was looking at what happens as the effect of bias in groups and saw,and many others saw that what we get are these kind of in group.and Outgroup dynamic.So the ingroup,uh,the majority group,the most powerful group and the outgroup are the minority or the least powerful group and insider outsider dynamics all sorts of places.So not just gender.We are going to look at it from a gender lens today,but it could be that if you are the only accountant in a team full of HR people,for example,it can play out,uh,over ethnicities or nationalities or cultures.It can play out over age.It's all areas where there's one group who.uh,hire a number and have more power and another group,her and Laura in number and have less power.So the thing for the in group is that when you are in the in group,first of all,you usually don't notice it because you're in the in group,you're part of the in crowd.I mean,if you think back to when you were at school,we all wanted to be in the in group.I never was,but I certainly could see that that was where the cool kids hang out.Um,but in the in group,in organizations or in society,We don't even notice it,really.We feel like we are there,we belong.We have that sense of belonging and it's okay to be me.And so if I'm in the in group and I share something in a meeting more likely to be listened to,or if I challenge somebody,that's okay too.I'm in the in group,I'm given credit,and I'm recognized for's in the outsider group that we have a different experience.So first of all,we feel a little bit less confident without even noticing it,and therefore we may find it harder to speak up because we feel like we're coming from outside.We're outside of the prevailing group.The prevailing norm.But other things happen in this,our contribution might be overlooked,so we may not be heard or listened to if we say something negative rather than seen as a possible challenge or opportunity to look at something different.It's often not welcome and forgotten.Ingroup members are less likely to make sacrifices for Outgroup members.They will do that for their own,but perhaps not for the Outgroup members.And the OUTGROUP members really feel like they have to prove themselves.So we hear this,for example,of saying that people who are in the ingroup can get a job based on past experience,and future possibility that people in the Outgroup really have to prove that they're capable of taking on a.So when we are in the outgroup,things are just harder.We have to work harder to get on,we have to work harder to be heard and cause of that,that can erode our sense of our own power and we can begin to lose energy or confidence,or we can begin to lose momentum.And I.Endless stories of women experiencing this.And also I would say endless stories of other people in minority groups.Exer experiencing this.I hear people talk about,uh,the ceiling of,at which point you can go in an organization based on your ethnicity.So it's not just gender related,it's a smaller group minority.And as I've said,men who are in primary care caregiver roles usually have an outsider group experience themselves.But what we want to do here is think about,okay,if I'm in an organization,I'm a woman,I'm experiencing this,it would actually be really good to think about.Acknowledging it first and saying,ah,that's an outgroup experience thing.That's not about me.And also thinking about how we can overcome it.So there's a really great example here from the Obama administration.Apparently early on in the administration,women were struggling to get their voice heard in meetings.And so a few men and women observed this and decided that they were going to do something about it.So what they did was that.Anyone spoke in the meeting and their perspective was ignored or overlooked.Another person in the group,man or a woman would say,Sarah just said something.Can we come back to her and hear it again?I think it's important.So it was offered people in the inside group who did this,who knew that it was important to change the culture.And the story goes that over time the culture really did shift until it was no longer necessary because people understood and presumably the women began to feel that they were having an insider group experience as well.So if that's a really simple example of things that we can do to become aware of this insider outside dynamic and that everyone can play.In it.We can also,I think,as I've said,if we're in the outgroup,be learn to name it.So,so often when we have these experiences,we internalize it as being about us.We can say,oh,maybe I should be speaking up more in meetings,or maybe I'm not clear enough,or maybe I'm not confident enough.Instead of that,I think it's better to say,huh,I might be having an outsider group.I'll name it about that.I'll see that it's not about me,it's about the prevailing culture,and then we can talk about it.In psychology,we talk about the importance of expressing feelings.So this doesn't mean it complaining,it just means acknowledging it and saying,wow,I notice I'm having to work harder in this meeting.This is hard for me.I'm finding it hard and I'm gonna look for ways to work it out practically so that we can overcome it,but also I'm gonna talk about it so I begin to feel better in myself.So that's one example.I think that we can think about our own experience when we are in the outsider group and what to do it,but here we are on International Women's Day and it would be good also to think about what else can we be doing from a practical perspective in organizations,and in the wider context.As I said at the beginning,I've done many women's leadership programs and I see some organizations and one in particular I work with making really amazing progress.I think that what they've done in this organization has taken a very long view,so this change has happened over a long period of time,and they have changed the conversation.I witness a very clear message in the organization.From both men and women,that there is an agenda of change and we are looking at a systemic way to see how we can bring about gender parity because we le believe it's a good thing and in organizations this is possible we can accelerate the pace of change.But it means making it a big priority and picking up every rock under,which might be hiding things that are holding back gender equity.It means looking at gender pay gaps,length of the working day travel requirements for roles.It means measuring everything that happens using your gender lesson lens and asking questions when more men than women are promoted.Or indeed when more women than men.We need to look at who's receiving top ratings and why.It means looking at our talent pipeline and asking if it's not5050,why not?It means challenging comments like,wow,it's amazing to have a woman in this role because those are a form of microaggression.It means really beginning to be open to all the things that are happening That might be saying we are not committed to gender equity.It's also about noticing right from the first rung in an organization.We see from the research that women and men at the first promotion point are promoted at different levels,and we know at this level that this has got nothing to do with caring responsibilities.Something happens in organizations that we don't promote as many men as we do women when people are early in their career and we need to be looking.and for women.There's also something I think that we could do a bit differently.As I said,I've been doing this for a long time and coaching women for a long time,and I think it's time to kind of change some of the way we are working with women.on leadership programs,and this is for me,much less about learning how to speak up.It's an insider outsider thing,and doing more tangible career plans,goals,targeted action to help women progress.One of the things I see as an entrepreneur is that there are many,um,mastermind groups.Prefer not to use the word master,but that's how we go that,uh,groups where people come together to focus on growing their business.They're focusing on financial goals,product,how to go to market,and they massively support each other in doing that.They help people overcome roadblocks and share when people are successful.I think we could think differently about our leadership programs and think.More mastermind groups for women,where we really work with them to identify what are their career traject.Where do they want to go?How are they going to get there?We back this up with support from the exco,not just hr,the EXCO owning the initiative,and we help them create a business plan,a strategic plan for achieving next roles in a sustainable way,and we identify roadblocks and we create a roadmap around those roadblocks.So we do something very practical and so that in those moments where things feel disheartening,where we feel like we are not getting anywhere,instead of going there,there we do something very practical.The other thing that we can do in groups I think is create opportunities for women actually,just to acknowledge that it's hard.Jacinda Jones's resignation in particular,led us to a point of hearing her say this was.Not just because I was heading a country,but because as a woman I had a,a lot of kind of negative voices and messages that I was constantly coming up against.So I think actually we perhaps need to just allow and create spaces for women to talk a bit about that.This isn't complaining,but it's sharing the experience.It's acknowledging that this is hard.We need to move on to action,but we want to help surface that feeling of difficulty and in that to practice some self-compassion to acknowledge that even though we should be able to find a way through it,we should be able to find it.We can't,we are pulling the weight of history.We are changing societal norms,and so let's be kind to ourselves,celebrate small wins,and see what we can do.And we can invite men to think about it a bit differently.All I can say here is sponsor,sponsor,sponsor.look at your pipeline.Think about the women who you work alongside.What are you doing to help them progress?Look for practical solutions like ensuring you have women in the pipeline,or you are looking at recruitment processes.Look at the practical things and talk to your young women and see what they think about where they want to be and what they want to achieve,and help them dream and think.Possible and every day think,what have I done to help a woman progress today?I'm really sorry that I don't have a magic solution.I am passionate about helping us to change the way organizations are,and one way I think we can do that is by helping more people in minority groups into leadership.And today I've been focusing on women.I want us to re-energize our efforts to think about it differently and to stay the course,to acknowledge the history and to begin to really say what do we wanna create for our children,our grandchildren,and our great-grandchildren?And how are we going to do that?And what can we do to speed the change up?