How to have open and courageous conversations about workplace gender equality and equity

Hand holding a megaphone on colours background.

As an organisation dedicated to creating cultures where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive, we have built strong expertise in gender equity. I have personally been running women’s leadership development programs for seven years now and I’m incredibly proud to say that 50% of women who go through our leadership programs get a promotion, role change or significant stretch opportunity within six months of working with us. But progress doesn’t come without challenge.

Despite the success that culture and leadership change initiatives like ours bring, they also tend to unearth unconscious bias in people of all genders and often surface the need to have uncomfortable conversations. Over the years we have helped organisations and leaders to execute these conversations successfully and I wanted to share our secrets with you so that we can all work towards having more open, sometimes confronting, conversations to promote gender equality now and for our future generations.

What are gender equality indicators?

Gender equality indicators are measurements used to assess the level of gender equality in a given society. These indicators can cover a wide range of areas, including but not limited to:
  • Economic participation and opportunity: measures such as the gender pay gap, the percentage of women in leadership positions, and the gender gap in labour force participation.
  • Education: measures such as the gender gap in literacy rates, enrollment in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and the representation of women in STEM fields.
  • Health: measures such as the maternal mortality rate, the prevalence of violence against women, and the percentage of women with access to sexual and reproductive health services.
  • Health: there are a few key indicators that reveal how well women are doing in terms of health, such as maternal mortality rates, life expectancy, and access to healthcare.
  • Political participation and decision-making: another way to gauge how well women are doing is by looking at the proportion of women in national and local government, and the representation of women in decision-making positions.

Further reading: Common women in leadership challenges

We need to ensure the conversation around workplace gender equality and gender diversity is a focus and a priority

We want to recognise everyone who is working to achieve gender equality as well as support the expansion of courageous conversations beyond the advocates and activists so that we may collectively bring about change for women in the workforce. To encourage these conversations, we have created a resource pack that you can download at the end of this article to support the conversation around gender equity; it is our hope that it will support you in driving positive change and creating a ripple effect throughout your own organisation and community.

We know from our own experiences and from research, that talking about the importance of gender equity in the workplace and why it’s good for business, for women and men, is critical to the success of any gender equity strategy. Continuing to inform and engage men and women on the topic of equity, and in particular gender equity, is necessary. As is dispelling myths and calling out some of the ‘elephants’ in the room.

Here are the three common misperceptions we regularly uncover when discussing gender equity initiatives in the workplace and investment.

Here are the three common misperceptions we regularly uncover when discussing gender equity initiatives in the workplace and investment.

Misperception 1: Isn’t an investment in women in leadership reverse discrimination?

We know from the research that some men may feel ‘left behind’ and believe that the focus on gender interventions for women (including the women’s development programs, pay equity and specific policies around flexible working arrangements) feels like ‘reverse discrimination’. We also know that some women may be hesitant to be part of any women’s only intervention/ take up specific policies for fear that they are being treated differently because they are women rather than on their own ability.

We stand strongly behind the importance of investing in gender equity and women’s leadership development, as does the researchbest practice in gender diversity includes coaching and development programmes for women, where investment in these initiatives have been found to deliver outstanding results in retaining and expanding the pool of female talent.

How to respond to misperception 1: Explore the difference between equality and equity

We need to unpack the difference between equality and equity:

  • Equality – suggests that everyone should be treated the same. However, the reality is that in no country in the world are women equal to men. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Report, we are unlikely to see true gender equality in the workplace in our lifetimes, with the next generation likely to face similar challenges, and with the possibility of it taking as long as 99.5 years to achieve gender equality globally. As the picture on the left in the diagram below depicts, if we treat everyone the same, it doesn’t account for the fact that our structures, systems and cultural stereotypes have bias ingrained within them. This means women can miss out on opportunities. It doesn’t mean that this is done on purpose! In many cases it is unconscious bias (and it is driven by both genders).
  • Equity – acknowledges there is inequality that exists in our world and aims to provide specific supports to underrepresented groups to create an even playing groundIn the context of gender equity, it is acknowledging the research about the history, current state and projected future around gender parity and choosing to actively do something about it (rather than pretending it doesn’t exist). It is about looking for ways to ensure that people of all genders gain access to the same opportunities and considering what the research says about ways to address the imbalance.


You might also be thinking ‘but what about the men?’. What the literature and our own research suggest is that women have different challenges than men, particularly on the path to senior leadership roles. These barriers significantly impact confidence and aspiration in some women, in a way that men are not impacted. This is clearly demonstrated by the gender gap at the leadership level across Australia and globally. Special supports/initiatives must be provided to bridge this gap. Our clients that invest in gender equity initiatives see significant changes year-on-year.

I have seen organisations shy away from gender equity initiatives or conversations because of fear; fear that people will be uncomfortable. This results in no progress and in some cases fuels unconscious bias.

Further reading: How to empower emerging female leaders

Misperception 2: Women don’t need fixing to improve gender equality!

Sadly, women still regularly receive messages (both subtle and strong) that they need to change themselves (often to be more like men) in order to be successful. This video from US-based magazine GirlsGirlsGirls featuring Cynthia Nixon titled ‘Be a Lady They Said’ does a powerful job of shining a light on this. However, when women act more like men, people of all genders tend to respond negatively; this is called the double-bind dilemma for women in senior roles and leadership positions. I have heard directly from women the following stories that serve as great examples of common experiences for women:

  • Be bigger and bolder: being told to take up more space (too bad if they have narrow shoulders and are five foot) and to talk with a deeper voice in order to be taken seriously and have ‘real’ presence.
  • Don’t be too much: being told to remove pink nail polish, lipstick and flowery dresses in replacement of a suit in order to be ‘appropriate’ to be a board member.

Women often can be hesitant to accept initiatives targeted at women with a misunderstanding that they aim to mould women to ‘fit in’.

How to respond to misperception 2: Of course women don’t need fixing!

We agree! Special supports should never be about changing women to ‘fit in’ but rather recognising that women face specific barriers in the workplace. There are well-researched ways to manage these barriers. When women feel safe and empowered to be themselves and to share their ideas, you begin to unearth greater diversity of thought which we know leads to better business outcomes and greater inclusion for people of all genders and other under-represented groups.

We agree that the focus should not be ONLY on women, that organisations need to invest in both inclusive leadership and developing and retaining women leaders.

Further reading: How to build inclusive organisational culture in the workplace

Misperception 3: What gender parity barriers?

This misperception comes from people of all genders. Women (especially senior) can feel they have personally never experienced gender barriers, and therefore extrapolate that experience to all women. Men (often senior) who have not seen or been told about gender barriers can be surprised to learn they exist.

How to respond to misperception 3: We all are promoters of unconscious bias

We all have unconscious bias. This is due to the way our brain is hardwired to make shortcuts. We are heavily impacted by our upbringing, experiences and broader culture when it comes to gender stereotypes. People of all genders reinforce and unconsciously perpetuate unconscious bias, being aware of this is the first step. Talking about it and calling it out helps to drive change and bring it into awareness.

We love the video series created by McKinsey that playfully unearths common and well researched forms of gender bias. NOTE: gender bias goes both ways and men face a number of strong and negative gender biases that also impact gender equality.

Final words on gender inequality in the workplace

We believe we need to work on two things simultaneously: we need to remove the organisational and systemic barriers to leadership that women experience, and we need to support all women who are currently in their roles and/or aspire to senior roles, to navigate any barriers they face along the way. This will require us to have more open, transparent and sometimes confronting conversations about what change, and support is needed to create sustainable change.

​​Want to learn more? Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to find out more about how our tailored women’s leadership programs achieve greater innovation and become a more diverse and inclusive organisation.

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