Women are not the problem
In this podcast episode, we connect with Michelle King, Director of Inclusion at Netflix, and author of the book, THE FIX. We speak about practicing inclusive leadership at the workplace during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, the notion of femininity stigma, and why diversity and inclusion programs don't work.
What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Michelle - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for great insight!
Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you very much for joining the podcast. I have been following your work for several years now, and have been impressed with all the information, content and power of your advocacy that you are putting out. The reason why we have invited Michelle to the show is to talk about her recently published book, THE FIX. Over to you now, Michelle. Could you please tell listeners about your passion and what is it that gets you up in the morning? Also, what led you to take all this research and put it into the book?
Michelle King: First of all, thank you for having me on the podcast. How I came to writing the book was, I am a researcher and spent 13 years at university; I am on degree number 5. I just can't seem to leave and I do lover research. So I have been researching women in organisations probably for the last 5 years or so. And, I was keen to understand what women needed to do more or less off to advance at work. I noticed through my work as a Human Resource practitioner that women did not seem to advance at the same rate as men, and when I first started reading about this topic it was probably when books like Lean In, the book, got quite popular.
I bought into this idea that somehow women need to do more to succeed at work. The idea is that something is wrong with women, something lacking, we need to lean in to be fixed right. And it wasn’t until I reviewed the academic literature that I realized that this idea is flawed, it is not the case at all. Research after research paper shows that women are incredibly capable of, just as women are exceptional leaders, exceptional networkers, they are exceptional negotiators, it is just that the work environment is not set up to support women’s advancement. I realized very soon that most people don’t know this, and that it was not a book out there that had clearly documented all the barriers that women faced based on academic literature. My book is a bit of a textbook. It is written in everyday language and I share a lot of personal stories there. The book is based on substantive research that shows that there are 17 different barriers that women experience throughout their careers, and for men, there are about 6 as well because workplaces were not designed with the difference in mind. This is the challenge: workplaces were set up for an ideal work type. It tends to be this 1950s male model what I call Don Draper. And that creates tremendous challenges for anybody who doesn't conform to the white male standard and what good leadership looks like in organisations. So the book outlines the greatest barrier to women’s advancement at work, why this is important for men, and most importantly what we can do to fix workplaces so they work for everybody.
Agnes Uhereczky: The book is incredibly well researched, and I loved the structure of how you break down these barriers and help with an audit for the readers to go through these questions. The different parts then take you through an inspiring quote as well as case studies. You drop the verdict very early in the book, saying that most diversity programmes are not advancing equality and that workplaces do not value men and women equally. You write that women were told to get mentoring, coaching, leaning in, networking differently. So all this advice that is poured on women on how to succeed is built around, as you say, this ideal worker, and if the container is flawed then whoever you put into the box is just going to struggle against it.
Shouldn’t we start preparing both men and women, boys and girls, for a more equal workplace somewhere much earlier down the line, such as in high school or colleges? I also think that your book is for girls and women who are not yet at work but who are going to go to work later on.
Michelle King: I completely agree with you. I think it is so important to take people through this early on, and this is something I do address in my book. So, I talk about how we set goals up in a way around education systems. I also address how we raise and socialize girls, and think that, and boys, but particularly girls that work-life or school life is one of the very first barriers young women face. It includes not being aware that organisations are not set up for diversity and that they are hard-wired for inequality and that they have these barriers. And so the challenge without arming young women with the necessary level of awareness is that they enter workplaces believing that if they work hard that will be enough, and the reality is that is not supported by research. You can do everything right, you can have literally all the qualifications, all the experience and still not succeed because workplaces discriminate based on who most closely fit society or worker standards. This can create tremendous challenges for young women in terms of their confidence. There is great research that shows that within the first three years of working lives women’s confidence drops by more than 60% in terms of their ability to reach leadership positions. I love those statistics because I think in many ways that show how we set young women up for success. And importantly young men also in terms of how inequality works in workplaces and the barriers it creates for them.
A good way to test this in your workplace is just to ask people - Do you know how inequality works? I am always shocked to find a number of diversity and inclusion practitioners who would not be able to answer that question. They might be able to answer in society but not in workplaces and unfortunately today I don’t think we spend enough time educating people on what inequality is and how it functions in workplaces and how organisations are designed. We have a lot of experts on inclusion but not necessarily on workplaces. This is challenging because we get solutions that don’t fix the problem. Again, I agree with you. Our number one priority should be to arm young women early on with that awareness. My book tries to do this by taking you through all the challenges that you are going to encounter. And, here are all the reasons that’s not you and it's your workplace. The challenge is people always want a list of to do. And the reality is that simply knowing is tremendously empowering because once you know that it is not you, you are not going to internalize it, you can see some of these challenges what they are. Obviously, I give a lot of solutions in the book but I think that, all honestly, the best gift you can give to people is the gift of being able to see things for what they are.
Agnes Uhereczky: You also write in the book that some of the current solutions, that are in place in organisations to advance women, are making the situation worse. Where is it exactly that you have found this? Or, can you give an example? I thought that was so powerful.
Michelle King: I’ll give you one example. A common fix for the women strategy is either women-focused training, women-focused development or women-focused mentoring. We have lots of these programmes that aim to somehow help women FIT into work environments that value them. And a great example of that is when it comes to things like the pay-gap. So we see a pay-gap exists in workplaces because work environments don’t value the contributions of women as much as they do men. The bottom line, that’s what the gender pay gap is. And that is after counting for all usual factors that affect wages, there is still this gap based on how we value men and women's contributions. What we find though is that the solution tends to be fixing women, so we’ll have organisations that promote women speaking up, women negotiating, women asking for more pay, so there will be these other lines on really trying to get women to somehow close the gap that they never created.
There is a great HBR study on this which shows that women do ask for pay rises and just as often as men, the challenge is they 25% less likely to get them in part because women’s contributions are not valued so they are not going to get a pay rise even if they ask, and number two, the other reason is really that when women do ask - and this is one of the key challenges women face in the work environments - they are asserting themselves, or speaking up, they are being a bit more dominant and asking for what they want. So when women assert themselves and ask for what they want, and what they need, they sort of define the standards society holds for how women should behave which is being almost thankful for having a job. But the standard in workplaces for what good looks like is a masculine one, so it is more dominant, assertive, aggressive, competitive. The challenge that this creates is women are seen as difficult. And so there is a classic example of where fixing a woman's solutions doesn't work. What does work when it comes to the pay gap, is that studies have shown that companies that simply open up their books, and show where the pay gap exists and how they are going to close that are the organisations that tend to solve it. So we have seen lots of examples of this, companies that publicize their pay gap. This is about taking accountability for the gap that exists, and then closing it within a few years. There are excellent examples of this in my book about different kinds of organisations that are doing this.
For me, the quickest way to close the pay gap is to publicize your data and tell us where the gap exists because you are accountable for closing it. It takes the emphasis off women and puts them onto the organisation.
And the last thing I say around this is that there are additional studies that show while men may ask occasionally for a pay rise, and women do as well, men generally don’t have to ask as much because they are already getting the pay increase. So the challenge is that asking women to ask for a pay increase is something I feel quite misogynistic in a way because that is not something we ask of men. So I always say to women - when you think you are being asked to change yourself but it is somehow framed in development which can make it hard for you to see - to ask the following questions: Is this building on my strength; Is this help to advance me; or, am I asked to change who I am and fix something that is not broken. A quick way to check in on that is to see if this is something the organisation would ask men to do and use that as your benchmark in deciding whether what you being told to do is helping you and developing your strength or is it something that is trying to change you.
Agnes Uhereczky: I loved reading the book about the femininity stigma. Would you mind explaining that?
Michelle King: It is interesting. Like I was saying before there is this masculine ideal standard that women meant to live up to because it is intransigently linked with being a good leader. So when you think of what a good leader looks like you are going to think of the 1950s, what I call Don Draper, from Mad Men, who is this macho man. For women that creates the challenge because you can't live up to that standard without engaging with masculine behaviour and when you do that you penalize because you are not displaying the feminine behaviours, you meant to be seen as a woman. This is incredibly challenging. But something we don't think about the reverse is also true for men. For men, it is a little bit tougher because being a man is intransigently linked with living up to Don Draper, and so is being a leader.
So men have this much harder penalty to pay if they deviate from Don in any way. So if they engage in more empathetic, more democratic, supportive, collaborative, vulnerable behaviours then likely to be penalized.
They likely are seen as less ambitious, less leader-like, less focused on their career, and as a result less likely to get promotion or advancement opportunities. I have got great statistics on that: research shows that men who just simply reduce their work hours for family reasons are likely to face a 26% reduction in pay and that compared to women who face a 23% reduction. So the penalty in some respect is greater for men when they deviate from Don, and the reason for this has been not only betraying their gender but so betraying what could look like for a leader. I always say that men need this more than women do because the world of work is changing and what we are increasingly seeing is that while Don Draper might have been the standard for what a good boss like in the 1950s, for leaders it is certainly not today. Today, if you are trying to be effective in a work environment you need to be able to collaborate, be empathetic, understanding, democratic, all the things that we associate with women. Command and control styles of work are gone, and increasingly as technological advancement unfolds in the next few years we are going to need leaders who can demonstrate those transformational behaviours. So this is the challenge we are presented with today. For men, the starting point is to think about what it means to be a man at work.
Agnes Uhereczky: I also wanted to ask you about the processes that perpetuate this ideal worker image. Which of these systems - which we discussed earlier such as coaching, recruiting, advertising - would you say organisations need to tackle?
Michelle King: I would say that you should not worry about any of your processes. Focus on culture. Focus on the day-to-day behaviours, interactions, and managing the moments. The moments where culture happens. Culture happens in day-to-day exchanges that we have. If somebody is making a sexist comment or joke, or somebody is talking over another person in a meeting, all of those moments build culture. And those of the moments where we, when these moments go unchecked, can create inequality. When you are on your Zoom calls, are you, as a leader, creating time for people to talk about inclusion topics? Do you schedule 15 minutes on your agenda to do a check-in and ask how everybody is feeling today, or how we are coping with mental health, how can we support each other, what do you all need, how can we practice inclusion during COVID-19? Let these conversations happen in teams because that is what builds culture.
You can have all the policies in the world right now. In many ways, I can't stand policies because they set a limit on what good looks like. You can have a policy around flexible work, you can have a policy around maternity leave. In reality, if leaders don't take up parental leave, or work flexibly, or if you don’t have leaders who value people who are on reduced work schedules, none of them matters. For me, this is about asking leaders to lead. Like, now is the time for leaders to lead. And if you are not checking in with your team, if you don't understand the individual challenges people are dealing with, and if you don’t understand how people are experiencing COVID-19 in different ways and the impact that is having on their ability to perform, you are not doing your job as a leader. This is the time to hold leaders accountable for leading. And this is the kind of trick we have missed in all this work.
Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you, Michelle, to give leaders who are listening to the WorkLife HUB podcast one piece of advice on how they can start fixing their organisations what would you say to them?
Michelle King: For leaders, I would come back to what I shared before about getting to know the barriers. Read my book, read other books that talk about the barriers and how they are different for everybody. Know the barriers so you can pay attention to the moments and manage those moments when they show up. It is very hard for leaders to give women career advice if they don't know the barriers women encounter. For me, this is about leaders having that knowledge so that they can show up in the right way and be the right kind of support to women. But also leader, coach and adviser, and that is what we need and you can't do that if you don't know what the challenges are that we experience, and how equality works and what your role is and is in dismantling it.