International expert in gender equality within organisation’s, Michelle King has an impressive career in advancing women in innovation and technology, leading global diversity and inclusion programs and advocating for women at work.
Michelle is the former head of UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change which manages over 30 private sector partnerships. She also serves as an advisory board member for Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation’s adolescent girl campaign. She is widely known for her popular weekly podcast titled ‘The Fix’ which interviews a variety of activists, thought leaders and business leaders, sharing practical ways that men and women can be an advocate for equality within the office. Michelle has converted her knowledge and experience into her latest book, ‘The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers that Hold Women Back at Work’.
In 2020, Michelle was invited to present at the Nobel Peace Prize Conference, and recently presented a global Harvard Business Review Webinar on the topic of ‘how leaders can tackle inequality at work’.
What has inspired and influenced you to dedicate your career to improving gender equality within the workplace?
As an advocate for equality at work I simply try to raise awareness of the challenges all women face at work, and what men and women can do to navigate and remove these barriers. The idea is very much to try and make workplaces work for everyone. Equality is not about men or women, it is about creating a work environment where everyone feels like they can be themselves and that they will be valued for this — these types of environments are known as ‘cultures of equality’ and my mission is to bring them to life in every workplace.
Many factors contribute to the inequality of women in today’s workplace. Many of the issues are deep-rooted in our socialisation and society. Does this mean that, as some people argue, we can only expect real change on a generational scale?
This is a very lazy argument often put forward by people who don’t want to take active steps to change. Equality is not something that happens to us, it is a lived experience much like safety at work. Equality is a practice, it is something we do, through our collective behaviours and interactions. Equality is not something that will just happen to us. There is no waiting it out. It is not enough to be in favour of inclusion and diversity, you have to make them fundamental to the way workplaces operate.
Do you think governments should be doing more to support equality, diversity, and inclusion within the workplace concerning legislation?
I am not a public policy specialist, but again, this implies that the problem is solved through government intervention alone with things like (targets, quotas and policies), which will never be the case. Sure, legislation goes a long way to setting mandatory standards for how all men and women need to be treated at work and what benefits they might be entitled to but this is the baseline, and there is no guarantee that minorities at work will be valued because of it. The aim is for leaders to take accountability for the cultures they create, by building a diverse workforce and valuing this diversity.
Are there any companies where you feel women are as respected and represented as men that we should be looking to?
I don’t think best practices are really the way to solve this issue, as culture is very specific to an organisaiton. While there are programs that generally can have an impact, like allyship programs or employee resource groups, this is by no means a requirement for building an inclusive culture. No two workplace cultures are the same. But, all experiences of inequality are a direct result of leadership (or a lack there of) so if companies want to tackle this issue they need to look at the leaders they have, and enable them to better manage the day to day moments where equality shows up and how they enable these experiences through what they reward, ignore, endorse and engage in.
Is there anything that employees can do to tackle inequality and put pressure on their company to become more diverse and inclusive?
I really encourage all men and women, to put in the work to build their awareness and understanding of inequality and disrupt thier denial. We are all in denial to some extent about how inequality shows up at work. Most of us like to believe that workplaces function like meritocracies but this is simply not the case. Success discriminates based on who most closely fits the outdated 1950’s leadership ideal. To support men and women at work by overcoming systemic barriers that exist in workplaces, because of sexism, ageism, homophobia, classism, racism and ableism, we have to know what these barriers are and how they operate in workplaces. So you must do the work to educate yourself, so when equality shows up in the day to day moments you can recognize it and take action in those moments to speak up and advocate for your colleagues, and even yourself.
Are there any specific industries that are still very much male-dominated and that we should be challenging?
Inequality, and specifically gender inequality, is everywhere. It knows no boundaries because we live in patriarchal societies. In my book I really expand on this, explaining how we came to this point and why the main challenge we now have is tackling the more covert forms of sexism and racism. In fact, some of the most sexist and racist organizations, are the most prolific advocates for equality. So the aim is not to pick on certain industries that may be more male dominated but rather to disrupt our collective denial about how we all might be engaging in behaviours that marginalize, discriminate , exclude and devalue our colleagues at work.
Over the past decade, we’ve made great strides to create better and fairer workplaces, but do you think organizations are truly placing enough emphasis on this issue today?
Corporate initiatives, which companies publicise to prove that they have cured the gender-inequality problem, are in themselves a form of denial. They encourage employees to believe gender equality has been achieved, when in fact it hasn’t. For example, a recent Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of Americans believe that men and women have reached equality when it comes to job opportunities at work. This makes sense given that research finds that 63 percent of men think their company is doing what it takes to address gender inequality.
This view come about because the mainstream approach to solving this issue—which includes diversity and inclusion initiatives like diversity training, diversity recruitment targets, and women-focused development programs—depersonalises the entire problem. These initiatives make it appear like companies are addressing the issue when really the problems remain untouched.
This approach then only fuels denial and lets employees off the hook since they think the company is handling it. This is in direct contradiction to a 2017 Pew Research report, that 42 percent of women in the United States say they have faced discrimination at work because of their gender. This reported data included being treated as less competent, receiving less support from leaders, enduring social isolation, or being denied opportunities to advance. Inequality happens every day, but denial prevents us from doing anything about it. When discrimination shows up at work, employees may acknowledge it, but they believe these are just one-off events that women need to overcome on their own. This, in turn, makes it easy to believe that women are the problem, not workplaces.
Your latest book, The Fix: Overcome the barriers that are holding women back at work stresses that we mustn’t ask women to change themselves to become more like men but that we should look to change the working environment. What is the main take away that you’d like the reader to learn from reading it?
It’s not you. It’s your workplace. Organizations were never designed for difference. Tackling this issue starts with correctly diagnosing the problem, which is workplaces and not women.
Scientists claim that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities, do you believe this will translate across and that the current health crisis will influence the longer-term objectives of a more inclusive and diverse workplace?
COVID-19 is shining a light on the problems we have in the world that are affecting people in underserved communities. Women comprise the majority of health and social care workers, which places them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and yet they also continue to earn 11 percent less than men in the same field. These are women who are not paid what they deserve to be paid, and yet they’re on the front lines putting their lives at risk. We need to help support them. We need to find ways to make sure they’re paid, and that they get what they deserve.
Some believe the forced digital transformation caused by COVID-19 and the new, technology-assisted workplace is quick to expose unconscious bias and, for example, video-conference protocols help everyone to be heard better. But will more tech actually tackle diversity and inclusion issues or add to them?
I think it depends on how you view the impact of the pandemic. On the one hand it has been incredibly challenging but on the other it has given workplaces an opportunity to redefine the way we work. In May of this year Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced that up to half of the company’s employees could be working remotely in five to ten years, while Jack Dorsey went a step further, giving Twitter and Square employees the option to work from home indefinitely. While physical workplaces are unlikely to disappear from Silicon Valley all together, these announcements represent a major move to creating a permanent remote workforce.
Managing a remote workforce is not as simple as telling everyone they can work from home, rather it requires managers who can delegate, coach and support employees with integrating work and home life. In May, Circle In, an organization that helps companies with supporting working parents, conducted an online survey and found 97 percent of men and women want to retain the freedom to work flexibly when COVID-19 restrictions are over. Employees want to define where they work and when they work, and to have the ability to reduce their working hours if needed. Technology will enable this and COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to redefine how we work for good.
With everyone forced to stay at home will there be a shift in gender equality as, perhaps, partners learn what their significant other juggles daily and share the load? Can there be a long-lasting shift that allocates duties in a more equitable way?
Well this is not playing out for women. COVID-19 has increased the mental load working mothers face because of the increased difficulty associated with managing competing priorities like household responsibilities, dependent care, home schooling and remote working. Managing a never ending to do list at home, in addition to holding down a job, can lead to increased mental and emotional strain, stress and reduced productivity—all of which has been found to negatively impact long-term career success.
While increased support at work and home would significantly reduce the mental load women face, navigating the associated emotional strain is a lot harder during the pandemic. A July 2020 survey conducted by Total Brain finds that, 83% of women and 36% of men had experienced an increase in depressed moods and 53% of working women and 29% of men have experienced an increase in anxiety, since February 2020. So, women are undertaking the bulk of domestic and childcare responsibilities and this is having a negative determinantal impact on their mental and emotional health and long-term career success. We need to share the load at home, and create workplace cultures that enable women to manage the multiple burdens they are carrying now, but all of this starts with recognizing the problem.
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