Momentum is building on issues of gender equity worldwide. Yet as a diversity and inclusion consultant, I am still aware of many organisations where sexism is rampant, and leadership is turning a blind eye. It may be so embedded in the culture and structure of the organisation that no one challenges it. Or it may be “career-limiting”, as I’ve heard many times, to be the lone voice that raises an objection.
Whatever the cause of this indifference or avoidance, I want to share five reasons why companies can’t afford to avoid the gender equity dialogue anymore
Just two years ago, the International Labor Organization released findings that at the current rate of change it will still take 70 years to close the gender wage gap at a global level. This means that if discrimination continues as it exists today many suitably qualified women will keep earning only 77 percent of what men earn in the same positions. In South Africa, the amended Employment Equity Act, backed up by Article 9 in the Constitution, takes a tougher stance on organisations that pay employees different amounts even though they perform the same or substantially the same work or work of equal value. This constitutes unfair discrimination.
It is therefore not enough just to work on interpersonal dynamics in your organisation (e.g. that men and women respect each other and get along). While this is important, systemic interventions are also necessary to ensure equity. Organisations need to be vigilant and courageous in checking for pay parity and correcting any disparities that are found.
Movements like the #MeToo campaign are empowering victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment to speak out and to find solidarity with others who have gone through similar experiences. It can be easy to read a headline or hashtag and quickly form an opinion. But take the time to educate yourself and others about the movement. For example, did you know that the origins of the #MeToo campaign started more than 10 years ago? The term was first used by social activist Tarana Burke to encourage empathy amongst victims of sexual abuse.
Does your organisation have the right sexual harassment policies in place and clear channels for reporting? Is your leadership team robust enough to deal decisively if and when an issue arises? Or even better, to be proactive in preventing against it?
One of my recent clients runs a reality show that hit the news when a contestant was expelled after found guilty of sexually harassing one of the other contestants. We were asked to run an on-air workshop about consent, which was timely and well received, but the client still received significant criticism about the length of time it took to respond decisively to the incident.
Your organisation can’t afford the negative ramifications of sexist advertising or sexual scandal. A few years ago, Bic was heavily criticized by South Africans for an advert that read: “Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss.” Even though they subsequently apologised, the damage was done and years later many still remember Bic’s serious blunder, calling into question why the company would have approved such obviously sexist messaging.
Your organisation might still make mistakes even while working on gender equity. But when this happens, it needs to know how to apologise for the right way. Firstly, the leadership must take responsibility even if it was not their express intent to hurt anyone. Secondly, they must express genuine regret and remorse. Third, they must be brief and to the point. Fourth, they must avoid using conditional language like “if’s” and “but’s”. For example, “Sorry if I offended you…” Most importantly, their changed behavior will be the best indicator that that the apology was genuine.
This last point is where clothing giant H&M has clearly gone wrong. They have recently come under fire for a second time in South Africa after issuing a very weak apology following the scandal around a racist hoodie that was advertised online. Previously, the same company was called out for the obvious lack of representation in its advertising, but didn’t seem to get the message. As a result, their stores were temporarily shut down and their bottom line obviously very severely impacted.
I’ve done many surveys for organisations that are struggling to retain talent. Time and again the reasons that emerge have less to do with salary or benefits and much more to do with the culture of the organisation. For example, men receive more unofficial mentoring than women. Or men are listened to more than women. Or the organisation is not supportive of women going on maternity leave. Or men (and women) are always getting away with sexist jokes. The list could go on.
The last one on its own is a big problem. Sexist jokes come up in almost every diversity workshop that I have run. I’ve had many participants argue with me that as long as others laugh along, such jokes are ok. But I’ve unfortunately heard the other side of the story – when those who laugh along or happen to overhear the joke are deeply hurt. Don’t be a secondary offender by laughing along or staying silent (this applies to both men and women!) Be willing to look at all the ways in which the culture favours one gender over another. You will lose people if you don’t.
Both men and women need to be involved in the healing process because gender injustices affect all of us. Advocate for your organisation, university or community to facilitate safe spaces where men and women can engage truthfully and compassionately on tough topics. In my journey as a diversity facilitator, I have seen many breakthroughs in such spaces.
It is not an easy journey but it is worth it. It is time to look seriously at your gender equity strategy and policies. The cost is too big not to.