Co-founder Mazuma
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International Women’s Day: Let's be allies

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is an equal world is an enabled world. Lucy Cohen, the co-founder of Mazuma and AccountingWEB Live advisory board member, echoes this theme as she encourages the profession to collectively help create a gender-equal world.​

6th Mar 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
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Businesswoman lagging behind businessmen

“You’d be too aggressive in that sort of meeting. You’re too direct.”

The words left the mouth of the man opposite me with absolutely no sense of irony. I’d only met this man once before. He’d spent a grand total of two hours in my company and had decided that I was not the right person to do the negotiating for my own business.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt I pressed a little. “What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely not sure where this was going.

“The thing is you’ll be dealing with a certain sort of person in that kind of meeting. They’re, you know, a more stereotypical CEO type. They won’t respond well to someone like you.”

This is a snippet from a conversation I had recently. The man opposite me was a business consultant who was trying to pitch his ability to introduce me to some key decision-makers.

The subtext of this exchange was extremely clear to me. Translation being:

“These CEOs are men. They won’t listen to you, a woman. Especially not one as confident as you. You’re going to need to either tone it down or get me, a man, to do this for you.”

It’s really quite something to simultaneously recognise the issue of sexism in business whilst also being overtly sexist. Perhaps this guy was performing some sort of multi-layered satire for me. Any moment now he’d break character and reveal himself as the ally he truly is. Sadly not.

Tellingly, I wasn’t totally shocked by this sort of comment – my experience is certainly not unique.

“An analysis of 248 performance reviews collected from a variety of US-based tech companies found that women receive negative personality criticism that men simply don’t. Women are told to watch their tone, to step back. They are called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational. Out of all these words, only aggressive appeared in men’s reviews at all – ‘twice with an exhortation to be more of it’.”Caroline Criado-Pérez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Women leaders are still a rarity

Needless to say, I will not be engaging the services of the aforementioned consultant. But it served as a stark reminder that, as a woman at the head of a company, I’m still a bit of a rarity.

Now, I don’t run a FTSE 100 company - nowhere near. But the stats on women who do are sobering. There are currently six female CEOs among the top 100, down from seven in 2018. On top of this, those six earn just 4.2% of the total pay awarded to FTSE 100 CEOs.

And if you take a look under the bonnet of my own industry, as of 2018 approximately 18% of partners at the top UK accountancy firms were women, despite women making up just over 45% of the total qualified accountants in the firms.

And this is not going unnoticed.

I must admit that I had a little giggle while attending a business awards ceremony last year, when the host quipped as she looked out into the audience: “Don’t you invite women to these things?”

Yes, the world of business and finance is still very much a male dominated space.

This recent experience has made me vigilant again about the ways that women are treated differently in business. Alright, no one is blatantly telling me that I can’t do my job because I’m a woman  (and even if they were they’d have a pretty hard time trying to stop me). But the experience I mentioned earlier was pretty damn close.

Income inequality

Frequently I look around a meeting I’m attending only for it to dawn on me that I’m the lone woman present. In the last three months I have sat on two panels where I have also been the only female expert. In 2020, shouldn’t this be different?

So how do you spot modern-day inequalities and more importantly, what do you do about it? There are women out there far braver and far smarter than me who have been paving the way for my generation and the ones that follow. How do we all, men included, make sure that equality happens?

Not just in the big legislation-changing headline ways, but in the day to day interactions that form the ground-level playing field for those of us that exist there.

We make real progress when we all pull in the same direction. Women are certainly strong enough to fight for what we want, but we all need an ally every now and again. Are you in?

And this bit is specifically for the men reading this. Perhaps you don’t want to go as far as identifying as a feminist (although, good enough for Obama…), but maybe you could think about becoming an active ally for women, especially in male-dominated business environments? We make real progress when we all pull in the same direction. Women are certainly strong enough to fight for what we want, but we all need an ally every now and again. Are you in?

I’ll plough on as if you’ve all nodded enthusiastically to that suggestion and look at some of the day to day issues we face and how you can be an ally to us to solve the problem.

Handshakes only, please

I’m going to go out there and say that in Britain, a handshake is an appropriate greeting upon meeting a new person for the first time. Or even a second or third time. Basically let’s just make a rule that unless you know someone pretty well, a handshake is the accepted form of greeting and farewell.

Why do I bring this up? Well, over the years I have been the unwilling recipient of many a kiss on the cheek from business people that I don’t know all that well. And yes, all have been men. If we were in a country where a kiss greeting is a norm for all genders then this wouldn’t be so much of a bugbear of mine. But generally, women do not want to be kissed by a relative stranger, especially not in a formal business setting – and especially where it is only the women who get kissed.

woman fighting back a giant fist

I’m sure that some of these guys have thought that they’re being “gentlemanly”, or even polite. But let’s just set the rule that unless you’d greet all genders with a kiss equally, you should stick to a handshake for everyone. 

And if you see someone you know doing this, please just have a polite and quiet word with them to suggest that a handshake is a better approach. 

Why does this matter? If you’re the only woman in a room of 10 men and all the men receive a handshake whilst you receive a kiss, you’ve been singled out as different because of your gender. You’re already on a slightly different footing to the rest of the room. It’s not overt, and it may not even be conscious, but it does matter because that slightly different treatment bleeds out into other areas too. And let's face it: no one wants to feel like the odd one out.

Call out mansplaining and hepeating

Most people have heard of mansplaining. If not, then mansplaining is a pejorative term meaning “to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner". Author Rebecca Solnit attributes the phenomenon to a combination of "overconfidence and cluelessness".

The internet is awash with women who have had this happen to them, often with comical outcomes. There are some pretty funny examples here. Has this ever happened to me? Yes. Many times. The funniest example of this was one day while I was in a DIY store buying some expanding foam. As I picked up what I needed a man came over to me and proceeded to tell me how to use it. I hadn’t asked for his advice. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t work for the store. He was just a man who decided that I obviously didn’t know what I was doing and went out of his way to offer me his unsolicited advice. 

Make sure that you’re not inadvertently mansplaining or hepeating things yourself. Not sure if you are or not? Just ask a woman – she’ll tell you!

But what about hepeating? Hepeating is when a man repeats or appropriates the ideas of a woman in a meeting and then gets the credit for it. The word was coined by Professor Nicole Gugliucci in a tweet in 2017 and has been retweeted over 63,000 times and liked 197,000 times since.

How do you help? Well, first of all, make sure that you’re not inadvertently mansplaining or hepeating things yourself. Not sure if you are or not? Just ask a woman – she’ll tell you! Assuming you’re not doing that, keep your eyes and ears peeled for it. Once you become attuned to it you’ll start to notice it happening. And when it does, there is a technique called “amplification” which can negate the effects of it.

Amplification involves summarising the key points of a meeting by repeating them and attributing the ideas to their original owners. This allows everyone in the room to not only hear the ideas again but to associate them with the correct person, not just the one who said it last. 

Why does this matter? When a person is credited with an idea they tend to get the follow on from that - work projects, communications, idea development. If the wrong person is given credit then that work goes in the wrong direction, ultimately meaning that the best person for the job may not be the one primarily involved in the project. To ensure that businesses and teams reach their potential, idea attribution should be accurate. Using Amplification to stand up to hepeating is a great way to ensure that ideas play out well.

Reject the manel

Manel is an all-male panel. It’s great to be asked to be on a panel. I am no stranger to getting up there and offering my pearls of wisdom. In recent years though, attention has been brought to the lack of diversity on panels. Increasingly organisations are being criticised for staging all-male panels (a recent example in the accountancy profession happened in May 2019). So much so that it became a meme featuring David Hasslehoff

Gender bias

It may not seem like a big deal, but nothing illustrates this problem quite as well as in Australia in 2016 when Public Transport Victoria came under fire for hosting an International Woman's Day event featuring an all-male panel. Yikes.

Steve Dimmick, chief commercial officer of doopoll is an enthusiastic rejector of all male panels. If he is ever asked to sit on a panel he checks who else is on it. If there are no women then he offers to give up his space to a woman or anyone else who is underrepresented at the event.

Taking his ally status a step further, Dimmick says that men should read, share, like, retweet and follow feminist writings that they agree with. He said “it’s surprising how many men are uncomfortable doing this”, suggesting that they think it may signal to other men that they are a soft touch. 

Why is this important? Representation matters: if you can see it, you can be it. I think it’s wonderful that we are starting to see a world where representation is considered more. Diversity adds depth and breadth to every industry it touches, and the most forward-thinking and high growth industries of the future will be the ones that have embraced that. More traditional industries still have a bit of catching up to do if they are not going to be left behind.

So if you get the chance to advocate for diversity on a panel – do it. Actively use your voice to ensure that panels are as diverse as possible.

It’s not positive discrimination

Invariably when I talk on this topic, I’m met with rebuttals of “but I don’t care what gender they are, I just want the right person for the job”. Or “I’m sure that women don’t want to be hired just because they are a woman”.

And if all things were equal, that would be absolutely fine. However, we have to concede that, looking at the statistics, a lot of people are in the positions they are in not just because of their skillset, but also because they are a man.

Let’s just look at the statistics from earlier for accounting firm partners as an example. If 45% of the qualified accountants in the firm are women, it would follow that around that figure would rise to partner level. It’s not going to be exact, but it should definitely be more than the 18% that it is.

So why isn’t this happening? Can we honestly say that this is truly a case of it always just being “the best person for the job”, or does the work environment and structure of business prevent women from getting to the C-suite? Is the culture so male-biased that women are effectively shut out?

All male panel

There are myriad ways that can happen. Childcare is a huge issue – even in couples where both partners work full time and earn similar amounts, women still do a far higher percentage of childcare-related activities. So if a meeting runs late at the end of the day and a woman can’t stay because she has to pick up her children, guess who is overlooked for promotion because her male colleagues “showed more dedication”? 

What would an ally do? If a meeting is running over and someone has to leave for childcare reasons, speak up and suggest that the meeting be completed there and then and picked up again at a later date.

We have to take steps for equality so that we truly do hire the best person for the job. Without doing that, businesses and their workforce will be stunted and suffer from unconscious biases that will halt progres

When meetings are scheduled, make sure that they are done at times where childcare issues may not be such a problem – like in the middle of the day rather than right at the start or the end. And use tech to solve problems. Make sure that tools like Skype or Zoom or readily available to colleagues so that everyone can attend the meeting whether they are physically in the room or not. 

How do you improve the situation as an ally? Use your position when you’re invited on a golf day and actively ask how many women have been invited – and then ask if you can invite more. Even better, given the relatively small number of women who play golf, suggest a different activity that allows time for networking and bonding, but doesn’t exclude groups of people.

So what happens if we take gender out of decision-making - consciously so that we can’t let our subconscious fool us.

A well-known tech recruiter once did an experiment where it presented 5,000 candidates, who had come top in online aptitude tests, to the same employers on two separate occasions. When the names and background of the candidates were supplied, 5% of women were selected for interview. Yet when those details were hidden from the companies, the proportion of women selected for interview was 54%.

This example illustrates that sometimes, we have to take steps for equality so that we truly do hire the best person for the job. Without doing that, businesses and their workforce will be stunted and suffer from unconscious biases that will halt progress. Saying that X% of top roles should go to women isn’t excluding men - it's ensuring that hiring committees are taking the steps to ensure that they truly are hiring the right person for the job and not missing out on recruiting talented people.

It’s a man’s world

With all of my talk of becoming an ally to women, it’s really easy to think of women as a minority. Granted, in the context of business leaders and accountancy firm partners, we still are. But globally women make up half the world.

The problem is that for the most part, we still live in a world designed by men and for men. From personal safety equipment, to street lighting to medical testing, the male experience is set as the default. So anything else seems alien. Look at the launch of the Apple Watch. This revolutionary piece of technology boasted a whole suite of health tools and trackers, but managed to omit a period tracking feature. Perhaps if there had been more women in the room then they might not have overlooked this?

If you wanted to explore this further, then the excellent book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez makes for a great read. 

If you are faced with a room full of men at a conference, or a manel, or a workforce that is all-male, ask the question “but where are the women?”

Ultimately though, remember that women really are not a global minority. So if you are faced with a room full of men at a conference, or a manel, or a workforce that is all-male, ask the question “but where are the women?” And “why aren’t they here?” 

Has this event been organised at a time or location that would be difficult for a woman who has children to get to? And if so, could it be suggested to organisers to consider that next time?

Then once you’ve noticed the disparity, become an ally by actively involving yourself in inviting and encouraging others to invite more women to events. Men and women can engage together to get the desired outcome.

If an issue doesn’t directly affect us then it’s easy not to see it. - and this is where a lot of the problems around gender equality stem from. You can’t really see the problem if you don’t think it exists or if it doesn’t exist for you.  We have to start looking outside of ourselves and try to see the world through the eyes of other people. It’s only when we all consciously take note and start to challenge the status quo that we’ll be able to make progress - and that’s progress that benefits everyone. Let’s be allies.