It has been said that it would be a boring world if we were all the same. The current global population is estimated at 7.7bn people; this number is increasing every day, and everyone has their own unique perspective and background. To quote Gene Roddenberry we show “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” And yet this diversity is not always reflected in all parts of our lives, particularly at work.
Looking at our top companies, women represent approximately 32 per cent of the directors on boards of FTSE 100 companies. This has increased over the last 10 years which is definitely a good thing, however women represent 50 per cent of the population so there is still a way to go before the gender mix on boards reflects this.
Diversity is shown to be better for business. A report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute has shown that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher returns and better average growth than companies with no women on the board. Having a diversity of perspectives in an organisation can enhance creativity and better decision making. This is also equally valid in projects where creativity and good decision making are also vital to success. If gender diversity is shown to have a business benefit why are there so few women on boards or leading major projects? Part of the problem could be unconscious bias which prevent equality. We generally like being around people that are like us which can influence our impressions and decisions regarding people that are different to us. Unless there are already women on the board, it may reduce the chance that a woman would be appointed to a vacancy.
In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins muses ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ as he tries to understand Eliza Doolittle. Many organisations are introducing leadership training courses for women to help them achieve in a more male dominated environment. This shows that organisations are aware of the problem that women can be underrepresented in leadership roles. However, it also looks like they are taking a Professor Higgins approach and trying to ‘fix the women’ so that they can be more like men. I don’t think we need to ‘fix women’, or any other group for that matter, we need to fix the culture of our organisations. This might include training for everyone, men and women, in how to recognise and manage unconscious bias. As a woman, I don’t want to be given a job because I am a woman but because I am the best person for the job. It would just be nice to know that unconscious bias hasn’t impacted my career.
This lack of diversity is not just in the gender mix. I was listening to a piece on Radio Four a few days ago that was talking about the lack of diversity of regional English accents amongst BBC newsreaders. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the majority of newsreaders on the BBC have neutral accents although there are a few notable exceptions like the amazing Steph McGovern. Part of the piece was commenting on the concern that the lack of regional accents amongst newsreaders may give the impression that they are not wanted and put talented people off applying for these roles.
Many of us will have completed personality tests at some point like Myers Brigg, Belbin’s team types or DISC. Although the aim is not to pigeonhole people into different categories, it does show that there is a great diversity in our personalities, how we approach things and how we like to communicate. Research has shown that there is a link between teams with a diverse balance of team member types and high performance when compared to teams with less diversity. Imagine being in a room with a load of people that all want to be the leader of the task that they are there to perform. I can see a lot of arguments and it might take a while for them all to work together to achieve the goal.
Communication style is also important. I was reading a fascinating book called Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson where they describe an incident where a manager described his employees as idiots because they did not understand him. The manager’s personality type and communication style were very different to his employees and this made it more difficult to communicate with them. His interpretation was that he was surrounded by idiots rather than looking at his own approach. Needless to say, the working atmosphere was not very productive, and employees were scared of their manager.
This is equally important, if not more so in projects where people come together from different and diverse backgrounds to support a temporary endeavour or project. Understanding how the people on your project team like to communicate and be communicated with can help move the team from the forming phase through to performing, hopefully avoiding the storming phase.
My takeaway from all of this was that was that having a diverse team can be a powerful strength to a business or a project as long as we behave in an inclusive way. Encouraging equality allows each team member to use their strengths for the good of the team. We are not surrounded by idiots and we need to support individualism.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Women in Project Management SIG has organised lots of events all over the country, to discuss diversity, what it is like to be a female project manager and how we can work towards a more equal and diverse working environment. To find out more about diversity of thought and approach, and the benefit of this to our projects, book your place at this year’s Women in Project Management Conference.
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