Workplaces today are in serious need of fixing. At least if you ask gender equality and organisational culture advocate Michelle King, and she has decades of her own research to back it up. As the founder of Equality Forward and with current and former roles as Senior Advisor to the UN Foundation's Girl Up Campaign, Director of Inclusion at Netflix, and Head of UN Women's Global Innovation Coalition for Change, Michelle works with leaders to build workplace cultures that thrive.
In this episode of Designit's podcast, YELLO, you'll discover the current state of equality from Michelle's point of view. Short on time? Read on for a summary.
Equality is freedom. Vulnerability is necessary. But a lack of awareness around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in business can feel like an entire system is rigged against you. The only way for you to succeed is if you adapt to it. But is that really the way forward?
In this episode
It's all about the awareness
Most people are aware of, and might even have participated in, various DEI initiatives introduced to them by their workplaces. But how you achieve equality isn't just about being aware of it; it's also about acting on it. Michelle believes that how we achieve equality is down to a process of awareness. Firstly, it's the awareness of inequality. This means understanding the challenges people face and acknowledging differences in people. Secondly, it's about understanding how this plays out in your life. For example, what are the moments and the pain points that your employees face? Without this understanding, it's extremely difficult to know what to pay attention to. Finally, you need to ask yourself: How can you lead inclusively and in what ways can processes and systems be rewired to work for everyone in your organisation?
Becoming a leader on DEI
One thing is to understand DEI; another is to know how to act on it. The problem today is that a lot of people stop doing the work at the 'understanding' phase. But the challenges require work; they require building a deeper understanding of things. As a leader, you have to take accountability for the inequality people in your team experience. But what does that mean, exactly? According to Michelle, it's about understanding and empathising with the barriers people in your team face. You have to realise that everyone at your workplace are individuals with different life experiences. Pay attention to those experiences.
The starting point
The starting point to doing the work is acknowledging what the 'ideal employee looks like at your workplace. Michelle calls this the 'success prototype'. The so-called 'success prototype' is essentially what is awarded at your workplace. Today, it's being white, middle-aged, heterosexual, able-bodied, and male. But there are also characteristics that you need to pay attention to, like dominant, assertive, aggressive, competitive, exclusive behaviour. Simply put, it's someone willing to prioritise work above anything else. If that's the ideal in your organisation, leadership probably looks like that, which then encourages employees to behave like that. It becomes the culture and the 'lived experience' in your workplace.
The problem is when you can't live up to that success prototype because you don't fit the ideal. The more you differentiate from what is considered 'good', the more challenges you face. But the way forward isn't about adopting the 'success' threats; it's about the freedom to be you. There might be situations where you have to be dominant or assertive and situations where you need to be empathetic. You need the freedom to assess those situations accordingly.
What is holding leaders back?
Michelle believes that one of the main reasons leaders can't get started is the lack of education, the inability to disrupt their denial, and understanding their employees lived experiences. Society simply hasn't gotten to a point where organisations and leaders look inwards to give employees the support and the right tools to thrive. To respond to disruption - like COVID - leaders need to respond to their environment - in this case, with empathy and understanding - and that requires a rethink of what good leadership looks like.
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