The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is Embrace Equity. As with previous years, there is an image that the UN encourages people to share across social media to raise awareness. This year it is an embrace: a self-embrace. Following a social media post that we saw questioning the value of these picture posts and instead encouraging action, we have decided to dig a little deeper and consider - are we embracing equity?
In the first of two articles around IWD 2023, we will be thinking about whether "talk is cheap", the action that is really needed with regard to achieving gender equity in professional services firms, and finally how to do International Women's Day 2023 justice.
Talk is cheap
The social media post that we refer to said that enough is enough; rather than post photos, we should be thinking about long-lasting change and action. This echoes something that Miriam Gonzalez said in conversation with Claire Rason prior to a previous International Women's Day. Miriam is a firm believer in action and the national campaign Inspiring Girls she launched in 2013 is a testament to that.
How can IWD promote action of equity?
International Women's Day has become a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. However, it should also stand as a call to action; to accelerate equality and drive gender parity.
It is true that IWD is something that each year attracts more and more attention. Firms up and down the country put on events and discuss what is needed to drive change or to celebrate advances that have been made. Surely you might think, "that's the point". However, as it attracts attention, there is a lot of virtue signaling, as well as events that are put on to “fill a gap in the social media calendar”, or orchestrated by PR agencies to demonstrate a firm's commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (whether that commitment is there or not). Sadly, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
Talk is cheap if there's no listening
It is true to say that conversations are generated. Conversation is something we encourage at Client Talk. We believe that conversation is needed to move the dial: albeit with the caveat that this must be a conversation where the other side listens. One of our consultants, Oliver Hansard, speaks about generative empathy: an understanding (empathy) that drives change. To understand we must listen. Actively listen. Once we do there is a powerful potential consequence of empathy: action.
Perhaps, around IWD, to drive action, what is needed is not more talking, but more listening. We must listen differently. More deeply. We must listen to different people. Talk is cheap but listening is invaluable.
Equality vs. Equity
The theme of this year's IWD aims to shine a light on the difference between equality and equity. Equality is about everyone having the same access to opportunities. Equity acknowledges that to achieve equality, given we don’t all start from the same place, or have the same needs, we must provide resources and opportunities that recognise those differences. Everyone must be treated as an individual. The image that is often used to demonstrate the difference is this:
What does equity mean in the context of gender, specifically in the workplace?
Gender equality in the workplace has long been a priority and, in particular, professional services firms have increasingly been looking at ways to support women to progress into leadership - on the face of it, exploring equitable solutions. However, the narrative for female leadership is often of women trying to ‘break through’ and achieve alignment with an existing partnership model.
The premise is that women are disadvantaged and/or misaligned with the model and actions are sought to help them via interventions such as women-only leadership development programmes or coaching.
Such approaches are based on the assumption that it is the woman who needs ‘fixing’ either in terms of what she needs to do to adapt or in some situations, what the firm allows in terms of adaptations to work practices. These have been referred to by academics such as Ely & Padavic as ‘accommodations’ - for example, going part-time, moving to internal versus client-facing roles, and more recently working at home remotely.
Accommodations are usually aligned with the notion of equity. However, our Class of 2002 report highlights the difficulty with providing accommodations solely to women in the context of leadership in professional services firms….
The men are forgotten. Not only are they forgotten, but they aren't heard. The trouble with this is that they are key to the solution.
What is the solution?
The focus of IWD has always been on women. However, in the context of female leadership and gender equity, there is a danger that this solo focus reinforces the need for the aforementioned accommodations and focuses attention away from the bigger picture and the systemic solutions that are needed. To find out what those systemic solutions might look like, read part two of this series.