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‘So here we are, the “squeezed middle” of women, still being held back in the workplace’

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How can we make work life better, not just for us, but for everyone, ask Kathryn Jacob and Sue Unerman 

In a society where youth and the need to appear youthful are seen as key attributes, any discussion around ageing can feel as if you’re raising an uncomfortable truth. It might just be us, but whenever a project is presented as being in the hands of a young and enthusiastic team, you can find yourself mentally questioning whether any of them actually has any experience of the issues involved. It’s equally difficult for young people, who may think that asking for guidance or advice is an admission of failure. The best teams are those that combine a variety of experiences, viewpoints and skills.   

Older women can find that they are particularly challenged in their desire to play a full role in the workplace. Research shows that they are unlikely to be at the most senior levels of leadership (you are still more likely to find a man called Steve leading a FTSE 100 company than a woman), nor are they in the much celebrated “pipeline” of female talent that companies like to celebrate. That “pipeline” may have existed when some older female colleagues started work, and they may look around and wonder why this talent stream still doesn’t appear to be 50% of the management team, or why the gender pay gap remains resolutely stuck in favour of men.    

So here we are, the “squeezed middle” of women, feeling that our contributions remain valuable and yet still holding back or being held back. About a year ago, speaking to a group of women at a high-street bank, we talked about the value of working mothers and how their focus, experience and people skills were models for a new kind of workplace. One of the audience started to cry (it was a group of about 20 women). She said she had never seen herself as having those qualities, that she felt a bit of a burden to her team as she worked flexibly, and that she didn’t feel part of their younger “gang”. Four other participants immediately told her she was seen as the one who knew exactly what was going on, could solve problems really quickly and was the person people turned to for advice. She was exactly the type of manager they wanted but she had never put herself forward because she didn’t feel she was a management type. She felt she was allowed in the room, as it were, but that she didn’t belong.   

Belonging is a key part of a healthy and thriving workplace. Too often we feel as individuals that there is a type of person who thrives in specific roles and who is destined to get them, so we shouldn’t even consider applying.  Which can then lead to a culture of people getting promoted because they are good at getting promoted, rather than for their ability to do a job and the contribution that they make. 

If this scenario sounds horribly familiar, you are not alone. If you aren’t someone who fits the perceived “correct” vision for a role, you may feel very alone and unable to express your views. Research for our book has shown that one in three people feel that they don’t belong in their workplace. So, every time you are in a meeting with 10 people present, at least three of you feel like outsiders.   

So how do we change this? It’s obvious that, despite the £6 billion spent worldwide each year on diversity and inclusion, there is no substantive shift in attitude or behaviours. Human resources teams have spent hours devising and implementing schemes and programs that appear to be transient.   

What we need to do is to recognize that it requires EVERYONE in the organisation to feel that they have a role to play, not just HR or line managers: every individual must play a part. Yes, it can feel challenging – particularly if you aren’t in an under represented group – to have an open conversation and to make yourself their ally. But if we all accept that we are on a journey and that we must talk openly to discover what we need to do and how we can help, then we can know that we need to forgive and explain to others what we feel before we can expect them to understand us. Or for us to understand them.   

We should aim to create a better, kinder workplace, driven by human-shaped values where what we contribute is key – not who we are or what our background may be.  

Belonging, The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work by Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards (Bloomsbury Business) is on sale here

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Meg's Quote

If you are depressed,
you are living in the past.
If you are anxious,
you are living in the future.
If you are at peace,
you are living in the present.
– Lao Tzu –

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