Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Playing the gender card

The phrase ‘playing the gender card’ has been used against women who raise issues of gender bias or discrimination, to discredit their claims. The implication is that by calling gender into play they are not only playing the victim but also directing attention away from their own lack of performance or fault in whatever may have occurred. Perhaps most famously in Australia this accusation was leveled at our former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her experience could be seen as a cautionary tale for women wishing to address personal and systemic gender inequality issues in the workplace. Fear of being seen as playing the ‘gender card’ has been a powerful way of silencing women.

If we are to tackle gender inequality we need women to be able to speak up about their experiences and we need men (and women) to hear them. Women need to be safe to call attention to legitimate instances of gender bias or discrimination. My own research show that women are in fact extremely reluctant to claim gender discrimination, gender bias or gender issues as relevant or at play in their careers.  When surrounded by men, in boardrooms and leadership elites many women choose to minimize their gender, not call attention to it. I have heard women canvas many other possibilities for career difficulties or lack of progress – for example personality, background and even class differences (‘raised on the wrong side of the tracks’) before they will consider their gender as an explanatory factor in their experiences.

 So when is it gender discrimination and not something else? And who should women talk to? The Centre for Gender in Organizations research Closing the Women’s Leadership Gap: Who can help? (scroll down to #32) surveyed professional women regarding their experiences of gender bias, who helped them, how effective was this, and finally how successful were the women in addressing the gender issues they encountered.

I’ve used this research in the past as pre-reading for women’s leadership development programs and have revisited it as I prepare to co-facilitate a leadership program for academic women. There are several important findings that are relevant for women and men.

One of the problems for all of us is that gender bias can be hard to see and hard to put your finger on. As Gillard in her biography My Story notes ‘…of all the experiences I had as prime minister, gender is the hardest to explain, to catch, to quantify’ (p.98).

In this article Trefalt, Merrill-Sands, Kolb, Wilson and Carter (2011) distinguish between first generation gender discrimination involving intentional acts of bias and second generation gender issues which may appear neutral when taken at face value, but nonetheless result in unequal outcomes.  Second generation bias is defined as ‘subtle, pervasive and embedded in the norms and assumptions that guide behaviours and work practices or organizations.’ In organisations we can see systemic inequities or patterns when we look across gender profiles (where the men and women are in the organization for example, or in gender pay gap data) but it can be easy to discount individual experiences.

So here is their list to consider:

  • Gendered job fit – women channelled into particular roles
  • Exclusion from leadership – not offered leadership opportunities because don’t fit the model
  • Invisible work – work that is expected of women, but doesn’t count
  • Diversity initiatives – being asked to represent women
  • Glass Cliff – provided with high risk opportunities at eleventh hour
  • Hyper scrutiny
  • Opting out of leadership – don’t feel like you fit
  • Expected to put work before all else
  • Exclusion from networks, resulting in less help, mentoring, sponsorship

The survey results showed that while almost all women (89%) experienced one or more of these gendered practices only a minority (on average 25%) were successful in tackling them. Quite a number (between 5-25%) depending on the issue did nothing to address it. Women reported getting most help from their spouses/partners, from women and from mentors. However the data analysis examining whose help was most helpful showed that help from men, help from professional networks, help from inside the organization, help from the boss and most particularly the male boss were all positively correlated with perceived success. Help from personal networks and those outside the organization (including external mentors) were negatively correlated with perceived success.  The most sought after help, from spouses/partners was not related to perceived success.

Trefalt et al. conclude that women appear to seek out emotional support for the challenges they face, and that while this more empathic help may make women feel better and more accepting of the situation, it does not empower them to try to change it. On the other hand, strategic assistance that is firmly grounded in the context of the organization is most useful. Bosses, ie those with authority appear to be most helpful and in particular they suggest male bosses. Female bosses they suggest may be caught up in gender dynamics themselves. In my own research I found that senior women, even if acting on behalf of other women may be compromised, putting themselves at risk of ‘overplaying the gender card’. (see Champions of gender equality)

So what are the take home messages? Women should go beyond seeking solace to seeking action. Male bosses play an important role in assisting women to address first or second order gender bias or discrimination. And we collectively must not accept the notion of ‘gender card playing’. As Gillard so aptly comments:

Someone who acts in a sexist manner, who imposes sexist stereotypes, is playing the gender card. It is that person who is misusing gender to dismisss, to confine, to humiliate: not the woman who calls it for what it is. Calling the sexism out is not playing the victim.…It is the only strategy that will enable change. What is the alternative? Staying silent? So that the sexism is never named, never addressed, nothing ever changes? p.112

Julia Gillard (2014)

My Story, Random House, Australia