In the Workplace, Is Gender a Unifying Factor?

On the surface, women of all races and backgrounds appear to face the same challenges in the workplace. They are usually paid less than men for doing the same work, are far more likely to be sexually harassed, and – should they give birth or start families – are stung with the ‘motherhood penalty’, where organisations discriminate against them for having children.

While this shared experience acts as a unifying factor for some, we must not assume that any fight for equal treatment and pay is in service of all women. In fact, it is becoming more evident that the fight for gender equality at work fails to account for one key factor – intersectionality.

Intersectionality acknowledges that different forms of social identity, such as gender, race, and class, intersect to create unique experiences of oppression and discrimination – and it is usually woefully lacking from organisations’ DEI agendas.

Different Women still face a multitude of workplace barriers

A recent report published by the McKinsey Institute on race in the intersectional experience in the UK workplace found that two-thirds of companies have high female representation, but only 50% have high ethnic-minority representation.

In Different Women, Different Places 2, we dared to ask whether the working lives and experiences of Different Women (Black, Asian and ethnically diverse) in the UK, the United States and the Middle East had changed in the ten years since our first report, particularly in light of gender pay gap reporting, and the rise of social movements such as ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’.

Sadly, the report showed that nothing much had changed, and it seems we’re still fighting the same biases. Our 2020 report found that Different Women still face a multitude of workplace barriers, notably discrimination, exclusionary organisational cultures and lack of recognition.

Crucially, 91% of respondents stated that gender is not a unifying factor between white women and Different Women.

Furthermore, Different Women believed that race was a more significant barrier to their progress than gender, in both the UK and the US.

93% felt that white women were perceived more positively and had more opportunities in the workplace. Only 12% felt that the current Gender Agenda was inclusive, instead describing it as being led by and focused on white women.

Unleashing the strength and power of Different Women

Leaders who want to unleash the strength and power of Different Women within their organisations need to dig deeper and interrogate the intersection of gender and race.

Here are four things you can do right now:

1. Collect and interrogate data on race, as well as gender

Although the gradual closing of the gender pay gap is to be applauded, your salary data is unlikely to paint a complete picture of fair pay across your organisation.

You need to look under the skin at the makeup of the Different Women in your organisation. Is it only white women who are progressing? How does their pay stack up against Black, Asian and ethnically diverse women?

You shouldn’t only look at the percentage of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse women in your organisation, either. Instead, you need to ask how many of those women actually occupy senior leadership positions. In terms of gender, how Black is your boardroom?

There may not be a glass ceiling for white women in your organisation, but what about for Black, Asian ethnically diverse women? If you don’t collect and examine intersectional data, you have no way of knowing.

2. Ensure your gender networks are fighting the cause for ALL women

You should be involved in gender networks at an organisational level – and not just to pay lip service to the issue.

Too many Gender Networks fail to address the bias within that excludes racially diverse women, and then congratulate themselves on furthering the Gender Agenda. Don’t tinker around the edges – align who you are with the true meaning of equality for every woman; fight for the mental health of ethnically diverse women in your workplace, and be fearless in terms of having robust conversations that lead to better outcomes for ALL women.

Be disruptive. Don’t be afraid to poke, prod and push your networks to take action, and take advice from the Good Gender Network if you need help moving hearts and minds in the right direction.

3. Use your privilege to proactively sponsor Different Women

If you’re a white leader, are you proactively sponsoring a Black woman? Or if you’re an Asian woman in business, are you proactively sponsoring a Latin X woman? How can you bridge the privilege gap so that every woman in your organisation and community is afforded the same opportunity to advance and progress in their career?

A big part of this – if you are white – is recognising your privilege to begin with, and opening up conversations with Different Women about their lived experiences in the workplace. Fact – 70% of women in the world are not white. We want to be seen. We want our differences to be acknowledged, not glossed over.

4. Do the intersectional work on ‘the self’

This last step is non-negotiable. As a leader, it’s imperative that you recognise that none of the above steps will work if you don’t first look at ‘the self’.

Don’t ask ‘what does it mean for me to be a woman?’ but rather, ‘what does it mean for me to be a white woman, and how does my experience differ from my other female colleagues?’

Embedding real, organisational change at an intersectional level cannot happen unless you have asked yourself these important questions. To shift the system, you have to shift yourself.

Tearing down the borders of difference

The simple fact is, there is no Gender Agenda without race. And you can’t have a meaningful discussion about race without considering gender.

To make real progress, we need to meet at the point in which race and gender intersect, tear down those borders of difference and build bridges in their place.

We’ll be sharing more of our team’s insights over the coming months, keep checking back to see our latest thinking…